Theater / Film

Review: GableStage’s ‘The Thanksgiving Play’ Roasts Holiday

Written By Christine Dolen
November 20, 2023 at 5:31 PM

From left, Stephen G. Anthony as Jaxton, Jeni Hacker as Logan and Anna Lise Jensen as Alicia in “The Thanksgiving Play” at GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, through Sunday, Dec. 10. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time when the descendants of indigenous people who first lived on the land that became the United States commemorate their history and culture.

Did you know that? Did you know that Thanksgiving, celebrated this year on this Thursday, Nov. 23, is not just a beloved holiday but a myth-infused one?

Playwright Larissa FastHorse, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and the first Native American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, aims to enlighten as she entertains with “The Thanksgiving Play,” the piece that got her to Broadway earlier this year.

From left, Stephen G. Anthony’s Jaxton and Tom Wahl’s Caden work on a devised battle scene in Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Running at GableStage through Sunday, Dec. 10 (and streaming online from Nov. 24 through Dec. 10), “The Thanksgiving Play” is not a somber rebuke to the long history of bloody tragedy involving indigenous people and white settlers.

Rather, FastHorse wields comedy and scathing satire as her weapons, her characters lobbing one trenchant observation after another about performative wokeness, inaccurate portrayals of indigenous culture, a perceived lack of Native American performers – and some of the more laughable aspects of putting on a show.

In bringing “The Thanksgiving Play” to life, GableStage producing artistic director Bari Newport has assembled a small but mighty cast of four of the region’s most seasoned, multifaceted performers. What each brings to her or his role is immeasurable, a combination of inventive creativity and skills honed over countless productions.

From left, Anna Lise Jensen, Jeni Hacker and Stephen G. Anthony are taken aback by Tom Wahl’s fiery idea of how to integrate the stories of Pilgrims and Native Americans. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

As director, Newport honors FastHorse’s layered writing and the actors’ comedic prowess with a production that is also multifaceted:  flat-out hilarious at times, thought-provoking and, in a few key moments, deliberately shocking.

In “The Thanksgiving Play,” three well-meaning locals and an actress from Los Angeles have come together in a high school’s drama room in any town except the Los Angeles area.

Their mission is to devise a Thanksgiving play appropriate for elementary school students, which might sound easy but definitely is not.  To prove that point, FastHorse found real examples of such pieces on the internet, and she includes a few of the cheerful, jaw-droppingly offensive results in her play.

Jeni Hacker as Logan discusses looks and intellect with Anna Lise Jensen as Alicia in “The Thanksgiving Play” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

The devised play’s director Logan (Hacker) is a high-energy high school drama teacher who may have torpedoed her career with her recent age-inappropriate production of “The Iceman Cometh” featuring 15-year-old actors (at least the 300 parents who signed a petition calling for her firing thought high school sophomores shouldn’t be going anywhere near that particular Eugene O’Neill play.

Logan’s mega-woke lover Jaxton (Anthony), who has already achieved his career ambitions by acting at the local farmers market and practicing yoga (including tantric sex), has volunteered to act in the play.  So has elementary school history teacher Caden (Wahl), who arrives at the first rehearsal – or first script-devising session – with a massive box of research on Harvest Home/Thanksgiving festivals going back thousands of years.

Stephen G. Anthony as Jaxton and Jeni Hacker as Logan in “The Thanksgiving Play” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Because Logan is far more savvy at applying for grants than she is at picking shows for her students, she has received a Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art grant to hire a professional actor for the project.  Alicia (Jensen) is that pro, a dark-haired beauty Logan and the others plan to showcase as the Native American presence and voice in their play.  Only things don’t quite pan out that way.

The topical content of “The Thanksgiving Play” is vast and varied.  The women, for example, ponder the value of having beauty vs. brains.  The horrific massacre of hundreds of indigenous Pequot men, women and children in 1637 is represented in a way that may make many in the GableStage audience recoil. Breaking down myths and stereotypes – of Native Americans, of Thanksgiving itself – is a noble intention that leads to a string of uproariously bad ideas about how to approach the devised play-within-“The Thanksgiving Play.”

So much of the pleasure of GableStage’s production flows from watching the four actors’ intricate, flawless delivery of FastHorse’s dialogue.

Jensen hasn’t been onstage since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, choosing to explore other career options.  She’s a great musical theater actor (she won the 2019 Carbonell Award for her performance in Slow Burn Theatre’s “The Bridges of Madison County”), but as she demonstrates in “The Thanksgiving Play,” she’s just as adroit at comedy.  Speaking consistently in the sort of sexpot voice used by multiple generations of seductive screen queens, Jensen plays the self-assured but generally dim Alicia as only a shrewd actor could.

Talking one-on-one with Logan, Alicia says, “…I know how to make people stare at me and not look away. And when I say something on stage, people listen and they believe me.”  Jensen shares that skill.

Anna Lise Jensen as Alicia makes her grand entrance in Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Hacker, who also choreographed the musical bits in “The Thanksgiving Play,” is another Carbonell-winning musical theater star (she received another on Nov. 13  for her performance in Zoetic Stage’s “Next to Normal”).  Just as memorable in straight plays and comedies, the petite Hacker uses her lithe body and endlessly expressive face to make Logan a woman so nervous about her shot at public school redemption that she mentally twists herself into a woke pretzel.

Anthony’s New Age Jaxton – if he were older, you know he’d have been among the throngs at the original Woodstock – is a companionable boyfriend to Logan, a man who wants what he wants but doesn’t want to work too hard for it. An accomplished musician/musical theater actor whose eclectic range includes “James Joyce’s The Dead” at GableStage and “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” at Actors’ Playhouse (and before that, Off-Broadway), Anthony infuses Jaxton with both magnetism and self-absorption.

Wahl, whose lengthy list of dramatic credits includes “The White Card” and “White Guy on the Bus” at GableStage as well as his Carbonell-winning solo performance in Zoetic Stage’s “I Am My Own Wife,” deftly leans into comedy as the nerdish Caden, who is nervously aglow as he sees his secret dream – becoming a playwright – about to come true.  Watching him chomp on an invisible ear of corn – part of the devising that’s going on – is just as hilariously joyful as seeing Lucille Ball stomping grapes.

Anna Lise Jensen as Alicia is aghast as Stephen G. Anthony’s Jaxton is choked by Tom Wahl as Caden in “The Thanksgiving Play” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

When you walk into GableStage’s small space at the grand Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, you may be hit by a wave of nostalgia once you catch sight of Frank J. Oliva’s set.

Oliva, who also just won a Carbonell for his design of Area Stage’s immersive “The Little Mermaid,” has re-created a vintage high school drama room.  A checkerboard linoleum floor, an elevated stage with a navy velvet curtain, a private drama department “office” adapted from a still-in-use janitor’s closet make it hard to imagine any other set was ever there (though so many have been).  Natasha Lopes Hernandez’s set dressing and props design is of a piece with Oliva’s work, with more than a few visual jokes.

Sean McGinley’s sound design, Tony Galaska’s lighting, Casey Sacco’s costume design (which goes in the direction of L.A. flashy/tacky for Alicia) and Maura Gergerich’s special costumes and props (for the pageant-style portions of the show) are of a piece with Oliva’s set design – just right.

From left, Jeni Hacker, Stephen G. Anthony, Anna Lise Jensen and Tom Wahl in GableStage’s production of “The Thanksgiving Play” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

If you’ve ever seen Christopher Guest’s brilliant 1996 community theater-skewering mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman,” you’ll notice echoes of it in “The Thanksgiving Play.” But what FastHorse is up to, particularly in this age of public-school curriculum wars, is as potent and necessary as it is funny.

The work of this impressive, insightful writer will be back in South Florida May 7-12 when her adaptation of the classic musical “Peter Pan” plays Miami’s Arsht Center. But why wait?  GableStage has delivered ideal pre- or post-Thanksgiving fare with its sharp production of “The Thanksgiving Play.”

WHAT: “The Thanksgiving Play” by Larissa FastHorse

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN:  2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday, 2 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (no show on Thanksgiving, no matinee Dec. 2), through Dec. 10 (streaming version available during regular performances Nov. 24-Dec. 10)

COST: $40, $45, $50, $55, $60, $65, all with additional $10 service fee (discounts for students, teachers, artists, military and groups); streaming ticket $30: $10 off with code THANKFUL on ticket orders for performances Wednesday, Nov. 22; Friday, Nov. 24; Saturday, Nov. 25 and Sunday, Nov. 26

INFORMATION:  305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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