Indians, Theatre Downtown

Theatre review “Indians” – Theater company: Theatre Downtown. – Playwright: Arthur Kopit. – Cast: Tom Joyner, Tom Sherohman, Ron Zarr, K.K., Murray Hoffinger, Vernon K. Denegar, Patrick Barnes, Rick Williams, Leslie Caulfield, Barry Phillips, Terrie Jameson, Lionel Cornelius, Missy Tomlinson, Viktoria Adoryan, John Kelly, John Meyer, Jeff Cooper, John Yazdani, Carlos Milan, Khaleddiya, Mark Hale, Eric Von Stephan, George Spelvin, JonathanPayne, Adair Fluno, Debbie Kilzheimer, Philip Miller, Morris Sullivan. – Director: Peg O’Keef. – Musical director: Morris Sullivan. – Orchestra: Leslie Caulfield, Adaire Fluno, Debbie Kilzheimer, Philip Miller, Morris Sullivan. – Set designer: Bud Clark. – Lighting designer: Aaron Babcock. – Costume designer: John Meyers. – Sound designer: Michelle Szalay. – Theater: Theatre Downtown Dramarama. – Times: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through June 25; 2:30 p.m. June 19. – Tickets: $12. – Reservations: (407) 841-0083.

By Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor of The Sentinel Staff
May 26, 1994
Indians, currently on stage at Theatre Downtown, is a tale of the second half of the last century, as seen through the eyes of popular hero Buffalo Bill Cody, possibly the first media superstar. It was an era in which the image of the American Wild West was born, and in which the culture of the Native American was almost wiped out.

Certainly this is a rich vein to be mined for dramatic purposes. Playwright Arthur Kopit uses black comedy and theater of the absurd techniques to tell the tale.

Theatre Downtown stumbles in telling Buffalo Bill’s story, but delightful music, engaging performances salvage the show.

Although this may seem an odd way to present the story of a shameful time in our country’s history, it actually reflects the era effectively. As government troops slaughtered Native Americans by the thousands, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show were on tour, distracting the country with their feel-good, rootin’-tootin’ shoot-em-up show.

Theatre Downtown’s production of this story, directed by Peg O’Keef, is an uneven one. It is an ambitious attempt at a play that is very difficult to mount because tone is everything, and subtlety so important. A cast of 28 makes the director’s job even more difficult.

A script that flips within a matter of seconds from a heavy-handed, preachy tone into slapstick foolishness requires a very careful hand. In the space of minutes, there is a horrifying and bloody scene showing the ceremonial Sun Dance and then an utterly ridiculous scene of the Wild West show with the roughriders galloping their wooden horses around the arena.

This contrast is repeated throughout the play. To carry it off successfully takes a bit more skill than is brought to the Theatre Downtown production.

On a recent evening, the players too often tripped over the scenery and over their lines; too often the costumes looked simply like rejects from a neighborhood Indian Guides powwow, rather than being symbolic or witty; too often the acting was ragged, with little to convince the audience that this is, indeed, supposed to be clever; and the voice level began at full tilt and seldom varied.

The play’s story follows the life of William F. Cody. Born in 1846, he was hired at age 22 to provide food for railroad workers. He killed 4,280 buffalo and received his nickname, Buffalo Bill. His name became a household word in the East when an adventurous journalist, Ned Buntline, wrote a dime novel about the adventures of Buffalo Bill.

Enamored of fame, Cody formed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which featured the roughriders, cowboys whose style was mostly manufactured by the ingenious imagination of Buntline. Even the great chief Sitting Bull joined the tour after he surrendered.

Despite the unevenness of the Theatre Downtown production, there are a few powerful moments, some interesting acting and some delightful music.

Tom Joyner is quite convincing as Buffalo Bill, right down to his long yellow curls. Although he tends to indulge in some overmannered reactions, he manages to give his character some depth.

Tom Sherohman is splendid as Buntline. Sherohman brings to vibrant life this seminal media genius, this predecessor of P.T. Barnum, Ted Turner and Donald Trump.

Sitting Bull is beautifully rendered by Murray Hoffinger, who offers his sad tale to the audience in a careful, understated performance.

Vernon K. Denegar is poignant as John Grass, one of the tribal representatives who pleads with the government officials to return his tribal lands. He also is powerful, and frighteningly convincing, in the Sun Dance scene.

The music, directed by Morris Sullivan, and played delightfully by Leslie Caulfield, Adaire Fluno, Debbie Kilzheimer, Philip Miller and Sullivan, is worth the price of admission. Where else in town could you hear a real live performance on the digeridoo?