Review: AlterTheater’s ‘Pure Native’ Tries To Claim Vital Claim For Native Drama But Misses The Target

Jeanette Harrison as Connie (left) and Manny Martinez as Brewster in AlterTheater’s “Pure Native.” Photo: David Allen/AlterTheater

The American drama loves its prodigal sons, its young wives with troubled bellies, its contested family properties. He likes to pit the initiate against the stranger; weigh tradition, family and land against the risks and opportunities of capitalism. This is how he wrestles with our eternal national questions: Who owns here? How do we atone and heal – or not – for our fundamental sins? Where are we going, and who or what is being left behind as a result?

Few sites are more contested than Native American reservations, and in “Pure Native,” playwright Vickie Ramirez brings these venerable theatrical traditions to a Haudenosaunee reservation in upstate New York, where a bottling company water is eyeing the river and its profit potential. In doing so, Ramirez declares that Native American drama is American drama, period, and that American drama is, and has long been, incomplete without Native American drama.

But if the art form is in dire need of such correction and expansion, AlterTheater’s production, which opened Sunday, July 17, at California Shakespeare Theater’s Upper Grove, all too often misses the mark.

Jeanette Harrison as Connie (left) and Terry Jones as Gary in AlterTheater’s ‘Pure Native’. Photo: David Allen/AlterTheater

Part of the problem is, if you’ve seen just about any other American family play, you can predict what Ramirez’s characters will say and do the moment you meet them. There’s the swaggering Brewster (Manny Martinez), who’s been sober for seven years but been gone longer and now wants to bring the corporate money to the ground floor, where job prospects are bleak and the mental health of young people is poor.

There’s his firecracker of an old flame, Connie (Jeanette Harrison), who vehemently opposes the idea, citing environmental degradation, colonizer mentality and anything that might put profits ahead of people. people. There is her husband, Gary (Terry Jones), the chief of the tribe who wants his wife to bear him children. And there are support players Karen (Erica Smith) and Art (Eduardo Soria), who are there to convince each other of each other’s arguments.

Erica Smith as Karen (left), Eduardo Soria as Art, Terry Jones as Gary, Jeanette Harrison as Connie, and Manny Martinez as Brewster in AlterTheater’s “Pure Native.” Photo: David Allen/AlterTheater

After a fiery tabletop scene, where the ensemble members dig into each other like they’ve been sharpening their weapons for years – registering the injury but relishing the sport at the same time – “Pure Native” continues to rehash the same arguments over and over again with little variation. Many cast members struggle with lines, preventing chemistry from forming, like a catch-up game where everyone keeps throwing the ball too short. Some artists’ delivery is so uninspired that a line about the end of a marriage might as well be an everyday greeting, and vice versa. Smith and Soria frequently shone, however, infusing their lines with rich brews of intent.

Harrison, who also directs, often keeps the staging vague, with the actors drifting through the acting space as if treading water until the scene ends. While Cal Shakes’ Upper Grove is beautiful – a small platform under a canopy of eucalyptus, here with single rows of seats facing each other on either side of the actors – insects tormented the audience and actors. It was painful to watch the artists struggle to stay in character with multiple parasites visible on the back of their necks.

Erica Smith as Karen (left) and Eduardo Soria as Art in AlterTheater’s “Pure Native.” Photo: David Allen/AlterTheater

In a crucial way, “Pure Native” differs from how those American family dramas typically unfold, in that it doesn’t take sides with a kaboom sound effect and melodramatic moans. The Tribal Council choice is a balancing choice, a choice that recognizes that the back and forth between change and tradition is an ongoing conversation. We don’t settle; we iterate. But while such a denouement sounds thoughtful and forward-thinking in theory, in practice it feels like a shrug of the shoulders.

K“Pure Native”: Written by Vickie Ramirez. Directed by Jeannette Harrison. Through July 24 at the California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda; the Cal Shakes shuttle does not depart from BART for this production. July 29-August. 7 at Boyd Memorial Park, 1125 B St., San Rafael. Two hours, five minutes. $10 to $35. 415-454-2787. www.altertheater.org