February 8, 2023

The 1491s’ Offbeat, Wry “Between Two Knees” Comes to McCarter; Play Fuses Indigenous History, Sketch Comedy, and Science Fantasy

“BETWEEN TWO KNEES”: Performances are underway for “Between Two Knees.” Written by The 1491s, and directed by Eric Ting, the play runs through February 12 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above: Cast members Shyla Lefner, left, and Shaun Taylor-Corbett, behind Justin Gauthier, in a scene that takes the sketch comedy-based play from history to science fantasy. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Between Two Knees depicts the brutal history of centuries-long oppression that Native Americans have received at the hands of the U.S. The painful subject matter ostensibly is presented as a story about a single family and its descendants — but it is projected through an idiosyncratic prism that blends sketch comedy, historical drama, and even science fantasy.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival (which commissioned the work through its American Revolutions initiative) premiered the play in 2019. A 2022 production at Yale Repertory Theatre followed. The play currently is being presented at McCarter.

Between Two Knees is written by The 1491s, an Intertribal sketch comedy troupe whose YouTube videos showcase work that their website describes as “satirical and absurd comedy.” The 1491s are Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan RedCorn, and Bobby Wilson. All five members are involved in Hulu’s award-winning series Reservation Dogs.

Eric Ting directs the colorful and energetic — at times frenetic — production. The framework of a revue is filled with a Cirque du Soleil aesthetic, blended with non-literal storytelling and fidgety pacing that echoes the style of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (particularly in Moulin Rouge!).

Racist stereotypes that are perpetuated via popular media — including theater — are a key target of satire. Scenic Designer Regina Garcia surrounds the stage with images such as the mascot of the Chicago Blackhawks; and the Land O’Lakes “butter maiden,” whose chest is covered by a dartboard.

Late in the show these images light up. In tandem with the showy bulbs with which Lighting Designer Elizabeth Harper frames the stage; as well as the noises created by Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez (who uses certain sounds as leitmotifs), this makes the play feel like a funhouse at a carnival. Indeed, not unlike a funhouse mirror, the play often presents a distorted reflection of the story it tells.

Between Two Knees opens with pageantry and music, which soon give way to the first of many bits of slapstick humor. One ensemble member (James Ryen) plays drums, and another (Wotko Long) plays flute. Both are outfitted in archetypal Native American dress. After other members of the ensemble ceremoniously enter, the curtain begins to rise. A man — whose knees are all that is visible — is pulled out from behind it. This is Larry, the Narrator (Justin Gauthier).

Larry affably but dryly greets the audience (he quips that he can smell the inherited wealth and privilege of white people in the room). He remarks, “We’re gonna talk about war and genocide and PTSD and molestation. So it’s OK to laugh.” The line summarizes the cognitive dissonance that pervades the play.

Gauthier’s performance as Larry is a highlight of the show. He delivers most of his dialogue with a suave, matter-of-fact demeanor that serves as something of an anchor for the audience, amidst the unlikely juxtaposition of subject matter against presentation. Not unlike the Stage Manager in Our Town, Larry guides the audience through each event, and also plays several smaller roles.

Larry hosts an installment of “Wheel of Indian Massacres.” Eventually the wheel lands on “Wounded Knee,” and Larry recounts the events of each. At Wounded Knee, an Injured Mother (Jennifer Bobiwash) says that her people were “praying for all of the white people to get swallowed up by the earth,” which will be important later.

The play’s title reflects that the bulk of the action is bookended by two events: the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, and the American Indian Movement’s 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.

At a Catholic boarding school for the “reeducation” (assimilation into European American culture) of Native American children, Young Irma (Shyla Lefner) and Young Isaiah (Derek Garza) meet. Irma is feisty and defiant, while the taciturn Isaiah initially shows signs of having absorbed the school’s indoctrination.

The many abuses — emotional, physical, and sexual — the students endure at the hands of the priest and nuns, are depicted in a bizarre musical number, in which we see tentacles emerge from the priest. The work of Choreographers Ty Defoe and Shaun Taylor-Corbett, and Projection Designer Shawn Duan, stands out here.

But the combination of lurid imagery with the barrage of production elements may result in some viewers feeling overwhelmed rather than emotionally impacted — which probably is the point. The creative team seems to be exploring the distancing effect espoused by writer and director Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s. This is exemplified by the use of songs (written by RedCorn), as well as labeling a prop “plot device” to remind us that we are watching a play.

Eventually Irma and Isaiah escape, grow up, and get married. The ceremony is performed by a New Age-y celebrant, Wichoni Whitedove (Rachel Crowl).

Years later, the couple gives a birthday party for their grown son, William (Shaun Taylor-Corbett). In contrast to the exaggerated costumes we see earlier (and later) in the play, Costume Designer Lux Haac dresses Irma and Isaiah as a conventional 1940s suburban couple.

“FDR Larry” announces the events of Pearl Harbor. William eagerly enlists in the Army. Subsequently, after receiving a devastating piece of news, Irma and Isaiah are replaced by their older selves (portrayed, respectively, by Bobiwash and Long).

In the second act, Irma and Isaiah’s grandson Eddie (who is left at their doorstep as a baby) is arrested in a bar fight and sent to Vietnam. We meet Irene (Lefner), a healer whose significant family connection is revealed in a musical number (using Lefner’s skills as a singer). A later scene recounts the events of Wounded Knee 1973, during which Irma and Isaiah are forced to prepare to defend their home against FBI agents.

In the final scene we discover that a character’s prayer, heard early in the play, has altered the course of history. As the show veers into science fantasy, we see Larry and other characters dressed as astronauts. The show concludes with a Saturday Night Live-esque, but pointedly barbed, sing-along musical number.

In “Comedy as Resistance,” an essay printed in the program, Production Dramaturg Julie Felise Dubiner remarks, “Between Two Knees is a version of comedy that takes back power which has been lost or stolen. It is a way of looking right in the eyes of people who tried to kill you and laughing at them.”

Ting, in a February 1 Town Topics article about the show, articulates the intention of juxtaposing “the heights of the comedy, and the depths of the tragedy.”

Before the intermission Larry knowingly quips, “That was like three plays in one act.” This likely refers to the sheer number of events that are portrayed.

Stylistically, a case can be made that the show contains two plays. One is the slapstick but pointed comedy containing the Wheel of Fortune parody, and the numerous contemporary references (Irma talks about preventing her son from becoming a “cultural appropriator”). The other is the moving story of Irma and Isaiah’s resilient escape from the boarding school, and their determination to start, and defend, a family together.

If Between Two Knees has room to develop, it is in finding a balance between these two “plays” within the show. Irma, Isaiah, and Irene are compelling and admirable characters whose potential for more growth is sometimes undercut by the raucous, slapstick humor. The cast is versatile — the show requires them to play multiple roles — but the layers of input that the audience is being asked to process leave limited room for nuanced performances that would enable greater character development.

Nevertheless, for audience members (such as this writer) who enjoy The 1491s’ brand of comedy, Between Two Knees pulls us along, keeping us eagerly curious to see what is going to happen next — even if it is going to be uncomfortable (even devastating) to watch. Hopefully this play will provide an avenue for conversations, and other works by talented Indigenous artists, that need to be heard.

Produced by McCarter Theatre with Seattle Rep, in association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Yale Repertory Theatre, and directed by Eric Ting, “Between Two Knees” runs through February 12 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. McCarter’s website notes that parental discretion is advised for strong language and themes; the play is recommended for ages 15 and up. For tickets or additional information, visit McCarter.org.