Arthur Kopit’s play “…muscles in on the flab of old mythologies, discovering nerves which connect us with the past… Indians become not merely the victims of an inexorable capitalist process … but, more important, the scapegoats for a society which needs a violent enemy to justify its own preposterous inhumanity…” John Lahr The Village Voice October 1969
Kopit being Kopit, this early work is neither linear history, nor unabashed polemic. Bookended by the visit from a Washington committee sent by “The Great Father” (the President) to plumb (read dispose of) Indian issues for which Bill Cody acts as intermediary, it’s peppered with absurdity – helpful in communicating horrific events without losing one’s audience.
Buffalo Bill’s (William Frederick Buffalo Bill Cody 1846-1917) fall from good, Christian intentions to become a pawn for our misguided government’s wholesale betrayal and slaughter of the American Indian, is sketched, but compelling. A frontiersman-turned-showman, he’s burdened by conscience and egged on by a voice-over device – God?! we could do without – looks back at what we now consider his “sins,” growing aggressively defensive.
Michael Hardart, Jamahl Garrison Lowe, Ron Moreno, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Charles Jeffries (Photo by Ed Forti)
It should be noted that Kopit did his research. Indians are respectfully represented with halting English and nature-centric syntax; treaties excavated for major misunderstandings. (Most of the Indians couldn’t read even English.) Specifics are more than unnerving. (Imagine facing a tribe with a Gatling Gun.) In the late 1960s when humanitarian causes and civil liberties were at demonstration forefronts, this must’ve caused quite a stir.
Creative staging and playing farce earnestly are both paramount to make a production of Indians successful. The first, Director Alex Roe handles skillfully. We sit in tiers on four sides of a mini-arena filled with wood chips and sawdust representing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show venue. Actors enter from curtained corners, often in performance within the performance. All four sides of the audience are engaged throughout.
Jay Romero and Michael Hardart with Buffalo (Photo by Caroline De Vries)
When Buffalo Bill (Michael Hardart) ingenuously kills 100 buffaloes in 100 shots (for an entourage that doesn’t like the meat) merely to impress a visiting Russian Grand Duke (David Logan Rankin, an unrestrained ham in every role he plays), animals are artfully embodied by constructions of metal ribs and horns (see photo). Depicting a ridiculously naïve, unnamed U.S. President as dressing up and playing cowboy on an inventive hobby horse is well realized.
Bill Hickok’s (Rankin) suggestion to send multiple Buffalo Bills around the world in cloned Wild West Shows utilizes masks.”You exercise creative control, we could go on like this forever!” he enthuses. There’s more. This production’s ending is particularly well staged, recriminatory and affecting.
Joe Candelora, Ryan Vincent Anderson, and Michael Hardart (Photo by Daniella Santibanez)
The second necessary factor, however, has no moorings. Lengthy performance in front of “our” President (Joe Candelora, who understands he must be credibly obtuse) and First Lady (Thomas Daniels – why? There’s a woman in the cast!) looks like its enacted by improvising high schoolers as do ostensible snippets of the Wild West Show. While Buffalo Bill’s extravaganzas were undoubtedly corny, this is just irritatingly bad. No one seems as if they’re even trying to be convincing.
Indians come off pretty well. Except that he’s inexplicably wearing neither headband nor headdress – both of which the company later trots out elsewhere, Jamahl Garrison-Lowe makes a believable-in-context Sitting Bull and an excessively dramatic Geronimo. The actor speaks with gravitas in concentrated, measured tone. reflecting internal translation difficulty and may be the only one onstage who understands that overacting in Bill’s show shouldn’t necessitate overacting in this one.
Charles Jeffries, Jamahl Garrison Lowe (standing), Ryan Vincent Anderson (foreground), Ron Moreno (on barrel), Erin Leigh Schmoyer (obscured), Michael Hardart (facing away) (Photo by Caroline DeVries)
Sioux John Grass (Ron Moreno) and Spotted Tail (Jay Romero) follow suit with sympathetic attitude and style. (Posture indicating pride would help) Moreno, in fact most of the company, however, miss an opportunity to draw us in by looking AT instead of through us. We should be on trial.
As journalist Ned Buntline, who spread and hugely enhanced Buffalo Bill’s reputation, Jef Canter is fine playing it straight but awful when faced with farce. Erin Leigh Schmoyer has a difficult, inappropriate accent and offers not a moment of believability in various characters. Among the committee, Charles Jeffries’ Senator Dawes is most solid.
Michael Hardart, Jef Canter, David Logan Rankin (Photo by Victoria Engblom)
Michael Hardart ebbs and flows as Buffalo Bill. We see pride, concern, and, at the end, desperation, but not enough defined frustration, anger, deference, and exuberance between.
This is an extremely mixed bag. The play would be served by cutting a good 20 minutes, but better served by better acting. Its message comes through loud and clear regardless.
Michael LeBron’s Set Design is just right. Costumes by Sidney Fortner mix items from actor’s closets with vivid rentals making this mostly vivid. Facial hair looks completely false. Wigs are much too coiffed.
Opening: Michael Hardart – Photo by Victoria Engblom
Indians by Arthur Kopit
Directed by Alex Roe
220 East 4th Street
Through December 16, 2017