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Indians

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 25, 2017


Michael Hardart
Photo by Victoria Engblom

Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows were huge circus-like extravaganzas and ostentatious spectacles of American exceptionalism. At the height of their popularity in the 1890s the shows toured with as many as five hundred performers, hundreds of horses, and a herd of buffalo. They featured crackerjack sharpshooters (including Annie Oakley, who starred in several editions), depictions of Native American battles, and a staged buffalo hunt. Indians, Arthur Kopit's 1968 play, which has been revived by the Metropolitan Playhouse, uses the Wild West show as a means for deconstructing nationalistic cultural mythologies, paternalism, and greed. What could be more American, and what could be more timely?

Director Alex Roe and set designer Michael LeBron have done a terrific job recreating the Wild West show in miniature within the Metropolitan Playhouse's fifty-seat theatre. The audience sits on four sides of a small corral, and wooden planks and canvas canopies provide the appropriate atmosphere. Cleverly conceived props represent animal carcasses and battlefield debris. Sidney Fortner's costumes add to the period flavor, and Patrick Mahaney's lighting design impeccably produces klieg-light effects and subtly captures moodier moments as well.

The impressive theatricality, however, does not offer sufficient razzle dazzle (to denote another showbiz-framed production) to mask the play's deficiencies. Comprising thirteen scenes, Indians moves back and forth between Buffalo Bill's show and a meeting of the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs that effectively stripped tens of thousands of Native Americans of their land. Broadly satiric bits are interspersed with polemical monologues and portrayals of brutal deaths of Native Americans at the hands of white men. The effect is intended to evoke an expressionistic nightmare, and Buffalo Bill, serving as narrator, instigator, and eventual helpless spectator, stands at its center.

The play had a brief run when it originally appeared on Broadway, and it was nominated for the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. Robert Altman directed a film version with the more precise title, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. Unfortunately, the play seems very much of its time, and as evidenced by the current production, Indians (along with its arguably politically incorrect title) has not aged well.

Kopit has said that he wrote the play in protest against the Vietnam War, and the political diatribe can be applied to a whole host of shameful acts perpetrated by the United States. Indeed, the play does not shy away from the reprehensible violence that is integral to our country's identity. For instance, as the evening progresses, the body count of the Indians continues to increase. Structurally and dramatically, though, the play keeps the audience at a distance (even as it implicates us in the historical narrative), and the characters are not emotionally involving. Either we have grown numb to this national critique, or Indians accomplishes a rare feat in making genocide seem dull.

The cast works hard in bringing energy and cohesiveness to the material. The eleven-member company assume a total of nearly thirty characters, and only Michael Hardart as Buffalo Bill plays just one part. (Stacy Keach originated the role on Broadway and received a Tony nomination. Raul Julia, Charles Durning, and Sam Waterston were in the ensemble.) Hardart does a fine job in the central role, and he has the requisite swagger and bravado in the early scenes. As the play chugs forward, the weight of history elicits an existential crisis in the character, and Hardart's Buffalo Bill poignantly and powerfully embodies cultural and personal guilt.

I was also moved by Jamahl Garrison-Lowe's Sitting Bull, particularly during his speech to the Senate Committee. Late in the play Sitting Bull has been denied his status as Chief by the committee, but he sardonically and with tremendous dignity enumerates all of the advantages and privileges he demands if he is to become an assimilated member of white society.

Ultimately, Indians is a frustrating theatre experience, but as contemporary politics has become its own Wild West show, and as the current government effectively deprives marginalized people of their basic human rights, the play's themes are more relevant than ever.


Indians
Through December 16
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: metropolitanplayhouse.org


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