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Ambitious undertaking goes 'Off the Rails'

In his playwright interview with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival regarding "Off the Rails," Randy Reinholz was clear about what audience members could expect: "Something for everyone" — a piece that would speak to the tragedy of Native American whitewashing in 1880s Nebraska, while also incorporating chunks of Shakespeare ("Measure for Measure"), with a dash of musical comedy, and a splash of Mel Brooks-style humor a la "Blazing Saddles." As such, I went into the evening with a sense of trepidation — with all of these things promised to an audience, was I about to witness a display of dissociative identity disorder in theatrical form? How could something as socially sensitive and politically volatile as the plight of Indigenous Americans (especially now, in the aftermath of the Standing Rock debacle) co-exist cheek-by-jowl with the raunchy and rapid-fire farce and broad comedy for which Mr. Brooks and his Borscht Belt ilk are so well-known?

The simple truth is that it can't.

While the play is certainly a brave experiment, and contains many transcendent moments — especially when it comes to those cycles in which Native American culture is at the forefront of the conversation, with interactions between players and their deceased ancestors, for example, as well as in powerful dramatic moments when the naked power of the White Man is imposed with unflinching cruelty onto the long-suffering native population — such moments are diluted and trivialized by a series of rather ludicrous sideshows that seem as though they have been conspicuously positioned to placate some over-the-top fetish for vapid political correctness.

Witness an unnecessary subplot in which a rough and rugged African American cowboy (Cedric Lamar) beds down with his sleek, young, twink lover (Roman Zaragoza) who also happens to be the reluctant Ivy-League attending son of a regional Kiowa chief. Elsewhere, Irish people are reviled as "not really white," while even still a troop of prostitutes spend their time mocking their assorted male paramours regarding the size of their members — when they're not banding together to save the world, that is. I counted three penis jokes and a quip about bestiality in the first 15 minutes of the play, which was so enthusiastically pitched by Reinholz as family friendly. That trend doesn't fade, and all the cock and bull shenanigans become a bit tiring, especially when they are juxtaposed with such serious topics as male sexual deviancy, beheadings, child abuse and genocide. How  Reinholz thought he could get away with informing us that 15 million indigenous Americans were reduced by slaughter to a couple of hundred thousand by white settlers and, in the next scene, present a garter-laden Quartier Pigalle-style dance number is beyond me.

There are clever lines. One in particular, in which a Native woman more strongly connected to her heritage refers to a turncoat in her community as an "Uncle Tom...ahawk," is hilarious and weirdly insulting, both, as was evidenced by the genuine but WASP-ishly nervous laughter around me. There is also some stellar acting, most notably from Stephen Michael Spencer playing Pryor. Spencer's gift for comic timing and sheer physical velocity saves those scenes in which he is gracious enough to appear. Lily Gladstone shines in her role as Isabel, a Pawnee woman who has turned to Christianity and teaching as a means of survival. Sheila Tousey is forceful as Madame Overdone, an elderly Lakota woman turned brothel owner. Brent Florendo is moving as a Pawnee grandfather who guides his living relatives from the Great Beyond, and Barret O'Brien is excellent and appropriately nauseating as Captain Angelo, a bloviating regional government despot with no moral compass. The rest of the cast fares reasonably well, but in the end many of the performances come across as a little hammy and labored, for which I blame the script.

The music and some intense dramatic moments will keep things ticking along for the engaged patron, but in the end this feels like two plays that were accidentally locked into a hotel room for the weekend, got into the mini-bar and ended up sleeping together. It's fine and fun and farcical, but this show doesn't do what it needs to do in order to convey the brutality, scale and impact of the issues it purports to address. Maybe I'm the dumb one. Maybe I missed some deeper message. Maybe I need to see the play again at a later date. But for now, I can't say that "Off the Rails" did much for me.

—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

(Aug. 4: Story updated to change Standing Stone to Standing Rock.)