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L-R:  Matt Langer (Dakota), John Scott  Richardson (Saponi), Wolfen de Kastro (Aztec),  Joan Henry (Cherokee), Alana LaMalice (Dene).  Photo by Tatiana Ronderos.

                             by R. Pikser

We see and hear very little of indigenous arts unless we are part of that community or we seek them out.  But the indigenous people of this country have much to teach us if we would only listen to them.  La MaMa has done a great service in bringing this adaptation of poetry to an audience outside of the indigenous community.  June Prager, director of Mirage Theatre Company, has adapted the writings of ten indigenous poets and staged the pieces with three men, two women, a bench, a table, two chairs, and two platforms.  The props consist only of some masks, a drum, a couple of shawls, and a cane.  We are back to the basics of theater, which ask us to give ourselves to the presentation and to the performers who will ignite our imaginations.

Joan Henry (Cherokee).  Photo by Tatiana Ronderos.

Wolfen de Kastro (Aztec).  Photo by Jonathan Slaff

The two senior performers, Joan Henry and Wolfen de Kastro, most successfully entered into each poem and brought characterizations and an inner life to the various characters they portrayed,  At the same time, they exploited the sounds of the language they were using and the images evoked.  Ms. Henry was particularly protean.  Each of her characters was clearly defined and lived fully for the space of the poem.  It was impossible not to watch her. The younger performers were able to accomplish one or two tasks, such as declaiming, or being sad, but have not yet learned to find various levels and motivations for what they are saying.  They also need to learn that listening is active, communicative, and part of one’s character.

Performing poetry as a dramatic presentation is a dual challenge.  The actors must be true to the form and language of the poem, at the same time finding a character and the character’s motivation, and speaking to the audience so as to communicate an idea.  The challenge is especially difficult when the poetry is declamatory, or exhortatory, as many of these poems were, because the character is that of the poet, but the actor must find that character, develop it, and make it live.  

The piece itself had some lovely moments and offered many provocative thoughts.  The several scenes when the actors sat around as a group were particularly effective.  Jokes broke up the sadness of many of the stories.  Drumming and singing added to the theatricality.  Except for Ms. Henry, the dancing needed work.  In the group sections we audience members were brought into the circle to share the waiting, or the stories of hard times, or what life was like before, or jokes about themselves or about the invaders who have taken over their land and done so much to despoil their lives.  This sharing created warmth and a space in which to consider what they said. 

L-R:  Matt Langer (Dakota), John Scott  Richardson (Saponi), Joan Henry (Cherokee), Wolfen de Kastro (Aztec).  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Cedars has much beauty, but the shape of the evening is problematic.  Sequencing disparate poems so that the performance feels like one whole is another of the challenges of presenting poetry as theater.  The beginning of Cedars introduced us to the cast as a group and the end was an indictment by the group of what has been wreaked upon these peoples and this land.  (The indictment would have been more powerful had the man masked to represent the White invaders reacted in some way.)  The problem lies in finding a path or some connection to lead us from the beginning, and the group sections, the conversations, the stories, and the declamations, to the end.  A fine performance cannot replace structure and the coherence of a structure will help to inform the performers.  Ms. Prager could take a lesson from the jokes she has inserted with such good effect into Cedars:  set up, build, and a good punch line.  We need a build.

Mirage Theatre Company and Amerinda
January 22nd–February 1st 2015
La MaMa
74 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003
Tickets $18 general admission,-$13 students and seniors
212 254 6468