The first rule of entertainment

Gobble, gobble, toil and trouble

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The cast of Curious Theatre Company's 'The Thanksgiving Play.'
Michael Ensminger

Like Fight Club, entertainment has rules, and the first one is so fundamentally important it deserves to be the first two. The first rule of entertainment is be entertaining. The creators, producers and performers can have any number of agendas, schemes, plots and plans for the impact of the piece of entertainment on display, but the minute they forget the first rule of entertainment, they’re more lost than Moses in the desert.

Denver’s Curious Theatre Company celebrates its 22nd season this year. For much of its existence, Curious was as sure a thing as one can get in this life. If you bought a ticket to a Curious play, you knew without any doubt that you were going to be entertained. You might also have your thoughts provoked, your preconceptions challenged or your heartstrings plucked, but first and foremost you would be entertained.

Over the past few years, Curious has become a self-proclaimed bearer of the social justice torch. During the welcome/thanks/turn-your-damn-cell-phones-off introduction to The Thanksgiving Play, the presiding company member explained that Curious is “fiercely committed to inclusion” and went on to demonstrate that fierce commitment by thanking the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapahoe peoples for their stewardship of the land on which the Curious Theatre stands today. It seems as though that comically white-guilt-smothered ritual is one that Curious intends to perform prior to every play, not just those written, like The Thanksgiving Play, by a Native American, and it is exactly the kind of self-consciously “woke” decision — delivered in this case unironically — that, ironically, the play that was being introduced skewers over and over again.

Logan (Emily Ebertz) has been commissioned by an elementary school to write and direct a play about the first Thanksgiving. Logan enlists her friend and lover, Jaxton (Jon Jurcheck), an aspiring actor, activist and “yoga dude,” to assist her. Both Logan and Jaxton are parodies of caricatures of politically correct, hyper-liberal, social justice warriors. Logan brings on one of the school’s history teachers, Caden (Matthew Schneck), who also happens to be a frustrated would-be playwright, to ensure the historical accuracy of the play. Logan’s biggest get, though, is an actual, honest-to-goodness Native American actress, Alicia (Adriane Leigh Robinson), from Los Angeles.

Logan and Jaxton consider themselves “enlightened white allies” of any and all minorities or marginalized groups (a label that could be applied to the Curious Theatre Company these days). Caden is a nerd. Alicia is a hot, dumb chick. Their characterizations are made up entirely of low-hanging fruit. While some of what the four do on stage is genuinely funny, the most interesting thing about them is that they sprang from playwright Larissa FastHorse’s mind as a response to the difficulty she had finding theater companies willing to produce her earlier plays, which included Native American characters, due to the difficulty of finding Native American actors to play the roles.

 Many of the sketches that comprise The Thanksgiving Play — from the opening Thanksgiving-themed version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” which blessedly ends on the eighth day, to an avant-garde attempt at a woke Thanksgiving play that looks exactly like the PC police contrived “non-denominational, non-offensive Christmas play” in a first-season episode of South Park — are real-world examples of unintentionally racist and/or I’m-more-woke-than-you misfires that FastHorse found out in the wilds of the interwebs. When those are the most resonant parts of your play, perhaps some more workshopping is in order?

I didn’t not like The Thanksgiving Play — a sentence the characters in the play could spend hours parsing into both a celebration and condemnation while entirely missing its prima facie meaning — but I certainly didn’t love it. More than anything, it made me pine for The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Back in 2008, before Curious became the arbiter of wokeness that it is today, it understood and honored the first rule of entertainment. It performed plays like the stupendous black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Plays that had no PC agenda, that didn’t have to contort or shortchange themselves in order to scream at the audience, “Racism/sexism/etc. are bad!” Plays that entertained.    

ON THE BILL: ‘The Thanksgiving Play.’ Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St., Denver, curioustheatre.org. $25 and up. Through Dec. 15