This production is scheduled May 3-19, 2024.

If you want to see four pros exercise their comedic acting chops to the max while wringing every ounce of irony out of a playwright’s words, then The Thanksgiving Play at SLO REP is for you.

Director Rachel Tietz has choreographed a great lesson for any wannabe director in how to stage a show that brings out the best in its players, keeps things moving, and gives audiences big laughs, even when the material itself is so far-fetched as to be essentially beyond satire.

In this day and age, four white people trying to create a politically-correct Thanksgiving pageant for elementary school children that honors Native Americans is ripe (perhaps over-ripe) for parody, and playwright Larissa FastHorse’s scenario takes them for quite a ride—you really won’t believe how far off course they go.

But Karin Hendricks-Bolen as a drama instructor (yes, art often imitates life), Michael Brusasco as her earnest yoga-dude partner, Mike Fiore as a history teacher, and Natalie Mara as an actress—mistakenly brought in because they think she is of Native American descent—all embrace the journey with gusto. They spend 90 minutes (with no intermission) trying to compose a pageant by “speaking their truth,” discussing “color-blind casting,” seeking “self-awareness,” bemoaning the “exotification of native peoples” and “centuries of patriarchal oppression” . . . well, you get the idea.

We can laugh at clumsy attempts to be ‘woke,’ but we can’t condone the racism and insensitivities of the past and present.”

Their actions speak even louder than their words, as the women explore gazing at the ceiling to find contentment while the boys . . . er, men . . . decide to improvise a reenactment of a bloody conflict between Pilgrims and Native Americans. Eventually they come to the consensus that they will have to produce . . . something . . . that has been written and performed exclusively by white people. The solution they reach at the play’s conclusion is about as far as you can get from the antics that come before.

In between scenes of frantic activity are projections on a screen behind the actors that include videos of school children taking part in real-life traditional—and truly offensive—Thanksgiving pageants and activities. The contrast between these slices of real life and the fictional activity on stage makes a striking statement. We can laugh at clumsy attempts to be “woke,” but we can’t condone the racism and insensitivities of the past and present.

In her program notes, Tietz wants the production to tell a “uniquely absurd story” that exposes “the problematic myth of Thanksgiving that most American grow up believing.”

The Thanksgiving Play as presented at SLO REP is truly absurd—funny, biting, and entertaining. It’s also unexpectedly thought-provoking. Your future Thanksgivings may never be the same.

:: Charlotte Alexander