Review: ‘Landless’ at Alter Theater (***1/2)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***1/2)

landless-03

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Landless” plays in a storefront  in San Rafael through February 1st, then continues at the A.C.T. Costume Shop Theater in San Francisco, February 12-22nd.)

Josia looks Latino and has a Mexican surname, but he knows he is an American Indian, even if the government considers his tribe to be landless. His identity is further complicated by being gay. He has found family, though, with Elise, a lonely woman who runs a general store on Main Street in their small rural community, a store which has been in her family for generations. She befriended him as a child, and he has lived in back of the store for several years, ever since his father rejected him.

As the play opens, we learn that Josia and Elise have fallen on hard times. The store is going to close and they are preparing to auction off the inventory and the fixtures. As they discuss the various items, they remember details of their life together and episodes leading up to their current predicament are acted out as the play shifts through time.

Love makes a family for Elise (Patricia Silver) and Josiah (Nick Garcia) in Larissa FastHorse's "Landless" by Alter Theater.
Love makes a family for Elise (Patricia Silver) and Josiah (Nick Garcia) in Larissa FastHorse’s “Landless” by Alter Theater.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse gives us a number of loosely connected scenes in the life of the town, Josia, and Elise, nicely observed and always well acted. Some of the memories hold more interest than others, and, occasionally, the play seems as lost as the characters. This sense of disconnect is not helped by the decision to mark the shifts in time with a repeated sound effect that seems mechanical, and interrupts the easy flow of the story, making it seem too episodic and skit-like.

Nevertheless, Ms. FastHorse has something important to say and is passionate about it, and this commitment, along with excellent ensemble work by the cast, makes up for a multitude of flaws. The relationship between Elise (Patricia Silver) and Josiah (Nick Garcia), the family they have formed, and the dreams which they share, is convincing and moving. As a townswoman whose fear of loss has undermined her sense of decency and fair play, Emilie Talbot offers a finely tuned characterization both villainous and sympathetic. Best of all is Michael J. Asberry, in multiple roles, each carefully differentiated. As Josiah’s puzzled father, he manages to reveal a wounded humanity in spite of his hateful behavior. As the homeless but dignified Mr. Harrison, he gradually reveals an impressive depth of character in a role that could easiliy be presented as a stereotype.

Michael J. Asberry shines as Mr. Harrison in "Landless".
Michael J. Asberry shines as Mr. Harrison in “Landless”.

The story involves numerous complications including a change in status for Josiah’s tribe, the proposal of an Indian casino, several reversals of fortune, and a completely unexpected ending that upturns many assumptions. It becomes a meditation on the meanings, variously, of  homelessness, family, loyalty, community and personal identity. It makes us think about what is truly important in unexpected and original ways.

In spite of some flaws in polish and execution, this unusual play clearly has something original to say and playwright Larissa FastHorse has a passionate voice that comes through loud and clear.

For further information, click here.

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“Landless” by Larissa FastHorse, produced by Alter Theater. Directors: Ann Brebner and Jeanette Harrison. Lighting: Jack Beuttler. Sound: Madeleine Oldham. Costumes: Janice Koprowski. Composer: Sky Road Webb. 

Natalie/Woman/Ensemble: Emilie Talbot. Elise: Patricia Silver. Josiah: Nick Garcia. Clinton/Mr. Gonzalez/Mr. Harrison/Ensemble: Michael J. Asberry.

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