Milwaukee Chamber Theater serves Thanksgiving satire


Native American playwright Larissa Fasthorse wastes no time breaking through the notions of quintessentially Caucasian perspectives on First Thanksgiving. his satire, Thanksgiving game, is determined to make the audience think as well as laugh and boy, does he keep his promises.

In this Wisconsin premiere, the Milwaukee Chamber Theater makes the daring leap from a digital streaming version of this show (premiered last season) to this on-stage version. Only two of the four actors of the old production remain; However, the new team is playing brilliantly under the direction of acclaimed actress / director Laura Gordon.

Gordon exploits every nuance of the situation, in which white teaching artists come together to create a play on First Thanksgiving. Determined to honor Native American history as well, the play’s director, Logan (Cassandra Bissell) hired what she believed to be an authentic Native American actor. However, his attempts to bridge cultural gaps go wrong. Sexy Los Angeles-based actress Alicia (Hannah Shay) notes that her stock photos are meant to reflect the many ethnicities she can play, including Native Americans.

This revelation almost throws Logan into hysteria, as she questions whether she will meet the requirements of the various grants she has received to perform the play.

As the group decides to find their politically correct way out of this mess, the playwright inserts brief chapters of elementary-level instructional guides. In one, to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the actors sing and dance to lyrics on headdresses, moccasins, blankets, bows and arrows, and a Halloween pumpkin? Hmmm. The funniest of these absurd vignettes involves a quartet of song turkeys, which are inevitably the target of a hunter (off stage). Now what elementary school kid wouldn’t like to see this?


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Comic book highlights

Meanwhile, back in class, Logan tries to save the day with the help of his “enlightened” boyfriend, who believes himself to be a skilled professional actor. In fact, Jaxton (Neil Brookshire) is a yoga / meditation enthusiast and busker around the corner who entertains the crowds at a local farmer’s market. They enlist the help of Caden (Torrey Hanson), an older professor and potential playwright who has done extensive research into harvest festival traditions stretching back thousands of years. His gruesome and racist dialogue is one of the play’s comedic highlights. While everyone in the cast should contribute to this project, laid back Alicia prefers to stare up at the ceiling and contemplate, well, nothing.

A talented cast shines a light on these stereotypical characters. As Logan, Cassandra Bissell is perhaps the most believable. Logan shows a sincere desire to “do the right thing”, even if it means violating his vegan philosophy (yes, their play will involve people who actually eat turkeys). His attraction to Jaxton (Neil Brookshire) seems to be based more on his desire to save an injured bird than on entering into a solid partnership between two adults.

Brookshire, as Jaxton, is so ashamed of his white male privilege that at one point he begs Logan to verbally whip him. Torrey Hanson, as a soft-spoken educator, craves attention as well but is content with the occasional glances and comments Alicia throws at him. Hannah Shay, in the role of Alicia, is reminiscent of the Hollywood starlets of yesteryear, satisfied with their appearance.

Sit back and laugh

Most of the time, the characters are so over the top that the audience can feel free to sit down and laugh at them. However, all is not perfect. The play has its faults; on the one hand, it tends to be “talking”. And much of the dialogue, while entertaining, dissolves into little more than liberal newspeak (which will sound like gibberish to some). The 90-minute piece (without intermission) gives the impression of running out of steam halfway through, despite the energetic efforts of the actors to keep it afloat. It also deviates in tangents that make the game lose focus.

The production elements are among The Thanksgiving game strong points. An authentic-looking classroom set (designed by Jason Fassl, who also handles the lighting) includes the hideous green painted walls – so familiar – and a large linoleum floor. Property guru Jim Guy cuts it all down to the last detail. He also creates hilarious and funny props (no spoilers here). Joseph Cerqua sets worthwhile lesson plan ideas to music, while costume designer Misti Bradford produces everything from turkey outfits to crumpled, old-fashioned teacher outfits (in the case of Torrey Hanson’s character).

In his opening remarks, Milwaukee Chamber Artistic Director Brent Hazelton mentioned that one of the goals of the company is to empower underserved populations. This piece certainly fits the company’s vision, as it embraces traditional notions of a friendly Thanksgiving meal between Pilgrims and Native Americans. The harsh reality, as history researcher Caden points out, is much darker and more enduring than mainstream America would admit.

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The Thanksgiving game continues through December 19 at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test is required for entry. Masks are mandatory. For tickets, visit milwaukeechamberheatre.org or call 414-291-7800.


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