‘Cherokee’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Review)

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about t’ expound this dream.”
Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

To say that Lisa D’Amour risks being an ass with her Cherokee, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is not to say that such a play is not worth the risk.

“Turn on, Tune in, Drop out!”
Timothy O’Leary, The Human Be-In, 1967

Her Cherokee, which premièred last year at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre, has a comic veneer but an oh, so serious heart. She wants us to turn on to nature, tune in to love, and drop out from the mad, mad world of civilized forms in triplicate.

4: Jennifer Mendenhall, Paul Morella, Thomas W. Jones II, Erica Chamblee, and Jason Grasl . Photo by Stan Barouh.
4: Jennifer Mendenhall, Paul Morella, Thomas W. Jones II, Erica Chamblee, and Jason Grasl. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Woolly production, directed masterfully by John Vreeke, makes its case to its civilized audience, who sit respectfully in their civilized auditorium, laughing civilly at the play’s more outrageous moments — who would have thought that a Texas school teacher could cut a rabbit’s throat like that?

In the end, however, no matter how wonderful the production might be, or how sincerely the playwright’s vision might sparkle, a call to drink the kool-aid and plunge head first into the baptismal fount of spiritual rejuvenation leaves its listeners a bit puzzled.

Tongue-in-cheek perhaps? Did I miss the satire? Or the memo about “sustainability”? Or should I cheer like John the Baptist and hope my head stays on?

Whatever the intent of Lisa D’Amour’s Cherokee might be, she has yet to expose it. As a result, we are left with many marvels — from many inventive, mind-teasing plot elements to its magnificent scenography and its five wonderful actors — but not a realized, and focused play about the necessity for transformation and renewal.

Cherokee takes its name, not from the Cherokee people but from the place in North Carolina that is now the headquarters for the eastern band of the Cherokee. Video projections engineered by Aaron Fisher show us the place, everything from its health clinic to its McDonald’s to its Harrah’s Cherokee Casino that opened in 1995.

Set Designer Daniel Ettinger gives us the old growth forest that haunts those Great Smokey Mountains. Like A Midsummer‘s wooded fairyland, the magic seems right at home within its tall chestnuts, lit magically by Designer Colin K. Bills.

Before the first human walked on stage, we heard the ancient voices of the Cherokee that might have roamed those woods, brought to us by sound Designer Palmer Hefferan.

Then, into this wondrous milieu huff and puff our four vacationing Texans: John (Paul Morella), Janine (Jennifer Mendenhall), Mike (Thomas W. Jones II), and Traci (Erica Chamblee).

But I get ahead of myself. First, we silently meet a young man, Josh (Jason Grasl), who steps on stage to change into a Native American costume, as fake as any Broadway glam. We will meet this theatrical native later; but for now, it’s all let’s celebrate the natural world.

The de-facto leader of this band of nature tourists is Morella’s oil executive John. Morella makes him charmingly incompetent at anything vaguely resembling work. In other words, he fully represents contemporary America where 95% of all “labor” does not produce anything but ink on paper.

Mendenhall’s school teacher Janine is all perk — she must work in elementary school to be that energizer bunny. As John’s wife of many years, she is the perfect embodiment of “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

The other couple on this camping trip gone loco is headed by Jones’s Mike. He has been beholden to John for way too many years. John, the petroleum engineer, got Mike his first job, on an oil rig. Mike doesn’t seem to mind, but then Mike has recently gotten married.

To Chamblee’s Traci. John, and Mike are in their mid-fifties. Traci is a take-charge 25, whose life has yet to take flight. Yet, she is revving up her engines. Mike and Traci are in love.

On their first night in the mountains, after a vigorous coital discussion, in triplicate, Mike steps out of the tent to hydrate. By morning he has vanished, and the world of Texans turns upside down.

Enter Grasl’s Josh, the local, but don’t worry he’s no sinister plotter of evil deeds. He is as sincere as a Carolina stream, and willing to go wherever the flow might take him.

 Thomas W. Jones II, Erica Chamblee, Jennifer Mendenhall, and Paul Morella. Photo by San Barouh.
Thomas W. Jones II, Erica Chamblee, Jennifer Mendenhall, and Paul Morella. Photo by San Barouh.

Like any good acting exercise that emphasizes spontaneity, Cherokee asks its audience not to question or to judge, no matter how outlandish the possibilities become. So strap yourself in and go along for the ride.

There is much to enjoy about Cherokee. Its sincere characters are easy to get to know. Its love of the natural world — one can never get enough of that. Its multimedia scenography and clever twists and turns of plot will put a smile on your face.

You might not know what you are supposed to think or feel at production’s end, but in a best case scenario that’s what D’Amour wanted all along.

And maybe that’s enough.

Running Time: 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Cherokee plays through March March 8, 2015, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.


Magic Time! A Look at ‘Cherokee’ at Woolly Mammoth Company by John Stoltenberg in his column Magic Time!



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