Bitterroot, written and directed by Paul Zimet for The Talking Band, opens with a scene from Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin--the play that President Lincoln was watching the day he was shot. A gun goes off, the curtain comes down, and we see the demoralized acting troupe trying to figure out what to do next. They've all been questioned by the government in connection with the assassination, and Washington D.C. is not very actor-friendly at the moment. Junius Payne (Jeffery Reynolds), the leader of the company, proposes that the company should bring a new theater piece to the ordinary people out West. The play will be based on the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition with the Corps of Discovery, an eight-thousand-mile journey from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and back. That's when Bitteroot begins to break down.
The play within a play structure has been done countless times, and this production doesn't strike any original notes. There's backstage bickering, an alcoholic actor, and plenty of diva-like behavior. The Talking Band, known for producing daring and original musical theater pieces, has here only managed to create something that seems derivative.
The score, firmly entrenched in the traditions of the American musical, contains some pleasant tunes and allows several of the performers' voices to shine. Peter Gordon's music pays tribute to Gilbert & Sullivan, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and others. Yet, unlike recent shows like Bat Boy and Urinetown that simultaneously parody and pay homage to their antecedents, Bitterroot simply seems adrift. The show pokes fun at the declamatory acting styles of the 19th century, yet the actors keep a critical distance and only rarely seem to embody the style of the music or the silliness of their characters. Zimet doesn't push the farcical elements in his script far enough. At the same time, he's made some questionable decisions in regard to casting.
The Talking Band boasts a multi-cultural ensemble, inclusive of African-American, Latino, and Asian actors. However, the group's selective use of cross-racial casting makes the instances of racial stereotyping seem even more insidious and offensive than they would otherwise. Hyunyup Lee is Jim Chu, the set painter for the theatrical troupe. The role is obviously played for laughs: Lee is dressed as a stereotypical "Chinaman," speaks broken English, and moves with stooped, subservient mannerisms. Junius presses the unwitting Jim into service as the female Indian guide to the Corps of Discovery. (This is the role turned down by the company's resident diva, portrayed by Latina actress Michelle Rios, because she doesn't want to play an Indian.) Junius convinces Jim to act the part by saying that Indians were also called "yellow skins," so the public will accept him as the female guide, Sacagawea, despite his gender difference.
If Lee were the only non-white performer in The Talking Band, this could have worked as a comment about racial stereotyping and mores in the 19th century. However, an earlier scene has Junius assigning the role of Clark's black slave, York, to the white actress Lilly (Ellen Maddow) because Lilly has extensive experience playing minstrel roles. Junius completely ignores the fact that standing next to him is a black man; I guess we're not supposed to notice that the man is black. Meanwhile, African-American actor Will Badgett appears as a member of Junius' acting company, which historically would never employ a black actor.
Why is it acceptable to have an Asian actor play out the Orientalist stereotypes of the day while an African-American actor is allowed to pass as white within the world of the play? Maddow, as the minstrel actress, seems to take great pains not to devolve into the kind of offensive stereotypes typically associated with minstrelsy; instead of blackface makeup, she holds a mesh mask in front of her face to signify her character. This restraint is admirable, even if Maddow's acting style stilted and declamatory. But it would have been nice if a little more racial sensitivity were shown in the portrayal of all the roles.
The show does contain a few entertaining moments. An upbeat musical production number singing the praises of buffalo sausage is quite fun. There's also a moving scene performed by Reynolds, in which he plays Junius playing Capt. Lewis while being prompted by another company member. The rhythmic repetition of the lines, combined with the actor's marvelous physicality, is oddly compelling.
However, it's not enough to save the show. At an intermissionless hour and a half in a cramped, non-air-conditioned theater, the production fails to provide enough laughs to be a successful musical comedy nor enough originality and risk-taking to represent a bold downtown theater experiment. Unlike the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, Bitterroot safely treads the middle ground and doesn't discover anything new.