Thursday, November 30, 2017

119 (2017-2018): Review: INDIANS (seen November 29, 2017)

“Buffalo Bill Get Your Gun”

In 1968, when America was in the thick of the political turmoil stirred up by the Vietnam War, Arthur Kopit’s Indians, a play about Buffalo Bill and America’s genocidal slaughter and betrayal of Native Americans, was produced by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1969, a much rewritten and fully restaged version had its American premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage (where it was done in the round), and, later that year, an even further revised Broadway production arrived; it reached only 96 performances but garnered three Tony nominations.   
Michael Hardart. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
Now, the tiny Metropolitan Playhouse, ill-equipped physically and financially for eye-popping productions, has chosen to revive the play by paring back the spectacular visual and aural effects that many thought were superior to the play itself. The Broadway production had a cast of 40 (16 of them playing unnamed Indians) but the Metropolitan commits actorcide by having only 10 actors play all the roles, occasionally crossing genders to do so. The Goliath of Kopit’s play wins before the David of this theatre can even draw its slingshot.

Company of Indians. Photo: Daniella Santibanez.
Perhaps, given our never-ending conflicts in the Middle East, Indians is being revived for reasons similar to those that inspired its creation. The following is from a revealing interview with Kopit by critic John Lahr included in the published version of the script:

LAHR: What prompted you to write the play?
KOPIT: I wanted to express the madness of our involvement in Vietnam. I had believed for some time that what was happening was the symptom of a national disease. I saw Vietnam as an area of great political confusions, both on the governmental and public level. What were we doing there? What were our purposes? What were we fighting for? To deal with these questions dramatically I had to approach them somewhat obliquely. To write about Vietnam specifically would have had no impact.
Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Ryan Vincent Anderson, David Logan Rankin, Michael Hardart. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
Most critics in 1969 assumed the play was primarily about the Indian genocide, not Vietnam. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times even wondered if the theme could be applied to the “black/white confrontation.” Thus the question of whether it was wiser to write “obliquely” rather than directly about the war can certainly be debated. What Kopit himself says he wanted to do was not so much to criticize American military policy in Southeast Asia but to illuminate the issue of how we mythologize American history, finding patriotic values that justify its nastiest excesses.
Jamahl Garrison-Lowe. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
To achieve his goals, Kopit avoids a linear narrative, choosing instead a free-form, amorphous, mosaic-like, 13-scene structure, mingling fact and fiction in a panorama narrated by and participated in by Buffalo Bill Cody (Michael Hardart). Bill is a confused individual, helping the Indians once he's come to sympathize with them yet cashing in on them by putting them on display.
Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Charles Jeffries. Photo: Daniella Santibanez.
Michael Hardart, Jeff Canter, David Logan Rankin. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
Buffalo Bill, of course, capped his career as a remarkably deadly buffalo hunter (thereby depriving Native Americans of a key food source) and scout by becoming a master showman touring the nation with his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. These rodeo cum circuses gained much of their popularity by both exploiting and sentimentalizing the now downtrodden Indians.
Ron Moreno. Photo: Victoria Engblom.
David Logan Rankin, Jef Canter, Ron Moreno (obscured), Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Michael Hardart (turned away), Charles Jeffries (hands raised), Jay Romero (with club), Joe Candelora, Thomas Daniels. Photo: Daniella Santibanez.
Kopit’s play introduces a panoply of historical figures (some familiar from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun), including dime novelist Ned Buntline (Ryan Vincent Anderson), gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock (David Logan Rankin), sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Erin Leigh Schmoyer), and chiefs like Sitting Bull (Jamahl Garrison-Lowe), Geronimo (Garrison-Lowe again), and Chief Joseph (Rankin, again). 
Jamahl Garrison-Lowe. Photo: Victoria Enblom.
For all the promise dormant in those iconic Western figures, the play is essentially a progression of scenes with a static dramatic arc and a persistently polemical purpose. It seeks to both demonstrate and satirize the atrocities (land robbery, food deprivation, killing, treaty breaking) and treachery committed by the American government and its Great Father—the real Indian givers—on Native Americans. This was a violent past whose guilt was expunged by presenting it as a heroic necessity, with its victims crassly romanticized.
Michael Hardart (foreground), Erin Leigh Schmoyer, Jay Romero, Joe Candelora, Charles Jeffries, Ryan Vincent Anderson. Photo: Yupin Pramotepipop.
Alex Roe, whose dully paced direction lacks propulsion, stages the play within a set designed by Michael LeBron to suggest we’re in a canvas tent. The audience sits in four banks of seats surrounding a slightly raised wooden platform into which a reddish, mulch-filled pit has been cut to serve as the main acting area. Patrick Mahaney makes what he can of his limited lighting apparatus while Sidney Fortner’s costumes do nicely on a limited budget to represent late 19th-century Western wear. There are a few symbolic props, including masks, but the effect is inescapably cheesy.
Jay Romero and Michael Hardart. Photo: Caroline De Vries.
Anyone attempting to stage an expansive play like this in such a physically spare version using only 10 actors to play all the roles is playing with fire sans the benefit of a brilliant conception and the finest actors available, and I don’t mean stars. Only the night before, I saw the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit production of The Winter’s Tale, also performed by 10 mostly young actors, with not one of whom I was familiar. Moreover, that show is even more bare-boned than Indians. Yet the result is magic.
David Logan Rankin. MaryRose Devine.
The Metropolitan's actors range from competent to amateurish. They create no magic, though. The Metropolitan deserves praise for being ambitious but, in this case, its ambitions outdoes its capacities, which are much better suited to its revivals of forgotten American plays in more standard modes. At the risk of being another Indians-giver, this is one I’d like to give back.
Michael Hardart, Jamahl Garrison Lowe, Ron Moreno, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Charles Jeffries. Photo: Ed Forti.

Metropolitan Playhouse
220 E. 4th St., NYC
Through December 16