The play alternates between Cody’s show and the United States Commission visiting the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas to investigate Indian grievances. Along the way are incorporated the 1872 expedition west in honor of Grand Duke Alexis of Russia with Buffalo Bill as guide, two visits to the White House of an unnamed president and first lady, and the play ends on the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Creek massacre which effectively ended the Indian Wars. Satiric scenes alternate with historic events in an uneasy blend of comedy and tragedy. The brutality of the U.S. government as a policy towards Native Americans is evident throughout.
Although presented as a hero when the play starts, we find very quickly that Buffalo Bill Cody was not what he seems nor was he really a friend to the Native Americans. Hired by the railroad to provide food for the workers, he kills so many buffalo that he wipes out the food source for the native peoples. He allows journalist Ned Buntline to write a dime novel about his life which is mainly fictitious but which makes them both very wealthy. His Wild West show which eventually includes Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley is a mockery of what the West and the Indians were all about. Promising to bring the “Great White Father” (i.e. the President) to the Dakotas, he is unable to deliver on this promise. Ultimately, he worries about “dying in the arena with all (his) makeup on,” that is to say as a fake copy of the man that he was.
Performed by 11 actors in 28 roles in a play originally staged with 50 actors, the production makes use of some rather strange casting so that not everyone is suitable for their assigned parts. The cross gender casting for the First Lady and Senator Dawes may be a contemporary touch but takes away from the historical authenticity of the drama. Actors recognizably reappear in second and third roles so that it becomes difficult to follow who is who.
While Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show requires a spectacular visualization in order to show how much Cody had sold out to commercialism as opposed to the plight of the starving Native populations, this minimalist production presents all of the scenes with the same lack of pageantry and flourish so that this point is not brought home. While the tented arena setting by Michael LeBron at first offers a sense of western atmosphere, as the play makes its way through its 13 scenes the visual picture become rather monotonous as Sidney Fortner’s mostly brown rough-hewn costumes add little color. Patrick Mahaney’s lighting is generally moody and atmospheric but does not at all times help the production.
In the central character of Buffalo Bill Cody, Michael Hardart plays only the one role. The play seems to be his coming to terms with the mythologizing of his achievements. Although twice he is given the line about fearing death in his makeup, there is no sense that he gains any self-awareness in the course of the play. As a result, he does not become a tragic hero with a fatal flaw. His bland, tame performance fails to hold the play and its many scenes together.
Better is David Logan Rankin as the over-the-top Grand Duke Alexis and even bigger and funnier as Wild Bill Hickok. His Chief Joseph (the man who said “I will fight no more forever”) is a majestic portrait of restraint. Jamahl Garrison-Lowe brings dignity and authenticity to the roles of Sitting Bull and Geronimo. While Jef Canter is fine as tabloid journalist Ned Buntline, when he plays himself in Scout of the Plains, the play he has written for Cody to perform at the White House, he seems amateurish as do Erin Leigh Schmoyer as a famed Italian actress and Charles Jeffries as a celebrated German stage star. As the Ol’ Time President and his First Lady, Joe Candelora and Thomas Daniels, respectively, play so broadly that they unbalance a play that is already a satire in tone and style. The rest of the cast achieves varying levels of competency.
Nevertheless, this is an important play which has much to say about America’s treatment of indigenous and native peoples. It is a reminder of our checkered past when it comes to the other whether it be the Vietnamese, the Native Americans or the Mexicans. Alex Roe’s revival has made some obviously serious choices not all of them favorable to Arthur Kopit’s script.
Indians (through December 16, 2017)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission