Sunday, June 30, 2019

"Between Two Knees": Day One, Play One, Theatre Eddys Goes to 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Between Two Knees
The 1491s (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Redcorn & Bobby Wilson)

Justin Gauthier
Multiple massacres of innocent men, women, and children; forced resettlements of native peoples to the country’s most undesirable locales; reeducation of children to forget their native heritage and to take on the beliefs of the Catholic Church and the ways of white men.  Subjects for a world premiere comedy at the revered Oregon Shakespeare Festival, co-commissioned by New Native Theatre?  Not likely, unless the playwrights are The 1491s (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Redcorn & Bobby Wilson).  After all, since the formation of this sketch comedy team in 2009, the five have used their own of Monty-Python-antics to achieve national notoriety as they challenge America’s prevailing images and knowledge of Natives, known to the majority invaders as Indians.  Taking their name from the last year this continent was void of the white man before Columbus’ arrival, the 1491s stretch their satirical version of history in Between Two Knees to the point of wild hysteria and in doing so, show how incredibly and tragically ridiculous the white version of that history has to-date been.

The title Between Two Knees refers to two events taking place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota: the merciless massacre in 1890 by the U.S. military of over three hundred Natives – mostly women and children –and the American Indian Movement’s (AIM) protest and takeover of the same area (the Pine Ridge Reservation) in 1973.  The play follows three generations of one Native family, whose patriarch was a surviving baby of that December 29, 1890 travesty. 

The background history is introduced by the evening’s narrator, Larry, who stands before us in pink-and-dotted underwear, telling us, “I smell white people” (i.e., the scents of sandelwood and privilege).  He also reminds us speaking into his ever-present mike, “Indians have been through some dark shit ... and all due to you guys ... Imagine how hard it was to cast this play.”  Warning us, “You will feel guilty,” he introduces a game show, “Wheel of Indian Massacre,” to take us through a comic skit of learning about various massacres of Native tribes, leading up to Wounded Knee.  And while he does, all we can do is laugh ... and laugh out loud.

Justin Gauthier
As Larry the narrator, Justin Gauthier will continue throughout the two-hour, thirty-minute evening suddenly to pop up (literally, out of the stage’s floor) to advance the narrative or just to tell a joke – the kind best described as guilty groaners.  All along, we mostly white people really do not mean or even want to laugh, but we cannot help it.  For example, a woman with baby in arms who is a victim of the Wounded Knee massacre provides us with a ton of chuckles as she loses her arm and then dies in an extended scene that rivals anything that Shakespeare ever created where a hero seems to take forever for that last breath.

Her son – who wears around his neck a pair of moccasins given by his mother – is found and raised by wolves (as illustrated in hilarious projections designed by Shawn Duan) before landing in one of the many, now-notorious Catholic boarding schools that were designed to turn red-skinned children into white-acting ones.  Young, shy, mostly mute Isaiah (Derek Garza) is spotted by a new, forced arrival at the boarding school, Irma, whose Native family was from Oklahoma. 

Shyla Lefner & Ensemble
Shyla Lefner’s Young Irma has no intention of becoming ‘whitenized’ by the lecherous head priest, and she thus boldly resists at every move.  She even convinces Isaiah to join her in a rebellion, leading to a wonderfully funny, slow-motion jiu-jitsu fight scene between them and a horde of Ninja Nuns.  To break free, Isaiah – still wearing the tiny moccasins – has next to fight one-on-one the head priest (Rachel Crowl), wrestling-ring-style with Jesus as a referee (Justin Gauthier).  He then has to battle a viciously monstrous Mother Superior (James Ryen) with Fight Director Rod Kinter pulling out all stops in each of these over-the-top, loopy scenes.

The Cast
Isaiah and Irma, having escaped the school, become action heroes, roaming the land while burning missionary schools and rescuing imprisoned Native kids.  Along the way, they fall in love and decide to get married, leading to a mock marriage where a white woman shaman (Rachel Crowl) performs her drugged-out, hippie-like version of a Native American marriage ceremony for the two – a wonderfully satiric dig at all the ways white do-gooders have tried through the years to take the traditions of Natives and make them their own, as if they were suddenly Native themselves.

The traditions and the stories that go with them parade in parody across the stage as the scenes spin by in lightning speeds.  There are so-cute, dancing stuffed animals that have left their totem pole in order to entertain us.  We hear of a grizzly ghost who died at the hands (or actually fins) of revengeful salmon and of a spirit, prophesizing horse who sounds suspiciously like Mr. Ed.  The newly wed’s baby, whom they name William, is baptized in the tears of white women named Becky in a ceremony that is so bizarre that one hardly knows how best to react other than with another somewhat puzzle-faced guffaw.

The contributions of Native Americans to America’s war efforts and their resulting personal sacrifices are illustrated in one instance as William (Shawn Taylor-Corbett) heads to fight Nazis when he turns eighteen, whereupon he meets a Native woman who is a nurse named Irene (Shyla Lefner).  Their resulting son, Eddie, ends up on the doorstep of his grandparents, the now Older Isaiah (Wotko Long) and Older Irma (Sheila Tousey) as twists and turns galore continue to unravel in this intergenerational story.  The story’s many unlikely corners turn often to involve over-blown caricatures of the majority race, such as white soldiers announcing as if in a Saturday Night Live skit a son’s death or such as goofball FBI agents telling jokes while raiding a Native household looking for protestors’ weapons.  But through it all, the wisdom of the elders begins to prevail as Older Isaiah and Older Irma both heroically and stoically face new traumas while keeping their grace, humor, and love for each other.

Justin Gauthier & Derek Garza
As now-eighteen Eddie (Derek Garza) heads to Vietnam, we watch jungle scenes of scary battles ensue (with a not-so-scary but altogether silly set of jungle leaves dancing about).  At the same time on another part of the stage, Shyla Lefner takes the open mike as her Irene gives us a stand-up comedy night version of more Native history that we have probably never heard, ending with a hauntingly sung “My boy, my boy, what have you done?” – one of several the night’s original songs by Ryan RedCorn.  She sings looking straight ahead with little expression as we watch the horrific fate of her son that has its own absurd angle in an explosion like none the killing fields of Vietnam actually ever saw.

Through it all, Eric Ting directs this multi-role ensemble of eight with clear attention to mess with our expectations and to rattle our white-America thinking to the point of making us pay full attention to the seriousness and tragedy of the history we are witnessing.  Regina Garcia’s slightly raised, circular stage includes multiple scenes that appear elevated through the floor or from behind the back-stage’s center doorway, all of which are often as if from a comic-strip’s page.  Lux Haac’s costumes are a full wardroom of our many stereotypes as well as tongue-in-cheek jokes about the majority race itself coupled with some costumes that show much respect to the Native elders who wear them.  Jake Rodriguez both composes an underlying score as well as a whole host of sound effects that rattle and shake while adding their own reasons once again to laugh aloud.  Finally, kudos goes to Elizabeth Harper for a lighting design that sharpens both the humor and the seriousness of the stories we witness while also adding airs of mystery and myth.

While much of the humor is effective in making points we in the audience need to understand, after a while the intended effects are somewhat dulled by the constant onslaught of the ridiculousness.  Things sometimes go so far over the top to lose their meaning and thus their humor; and some scenes seem to outlast their stay, especially in the second act.  But after all, this is a play created by a comedy sketch team; and in any series of such comedy sketches, some scenes work better than others, and some are meant as a trial to be tossed if they do not work.  Between Two Knees often feels like such an evening, making me wonder if I return tomorrow, will I actually see the same play or the latest version re-edited by another late-night session by the 1491s.

But for sure, that team has the last laugh.  After all, they have ensured implanting into all our mostly Caucasian selves an earworm not soon to leave us, one that rings with a catchy tune singing over and again, “So long, white people; some of you were cool, but most of you were not!”

Rating: 4 E

Between Two Knees continues through October 27, 2019 in the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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