A playwright well before he became the artistic director of Theater Rhino, the nation's longest-running gay theater, John Fisher has long demonstrated a keen interest in historical and military subjects that's atypical for gay venues. "Ishi: The Last of the Yahi" preems here sans any gay content or interpretation. This tale of California's purported "last wild Indian," who spent his final decades as virtual museum exhibit, offers absorbing, imaginative analysis of thorny ethical issues. The only major flaw is a hefty length that dissipates interest after the strong first act.

A playwright well before he became the artistic director of Theater Rhino, the nation’s longest-running gay theater, John Fisher has long demonstrated a keen interest in historical and military subjects that’s atypical for gay venues. “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi” preems here sans any gay content or interpretation. This tale of California’s purported “last wild Indian,” who spent his final decades as virtual museum exhibit, offers absorbing, imaginative analysis of thorny ethical issues. The only major flaw is a hefty length that dissipates interest after the strong first act.

Ishi, so named by his keepers because it’s the Yana word for “man” (in line with tribal custom, he never revealed his true name), descended from hiding to the Northern California town of Oroville in 1911. Cattlemen, farmers and bounty hunters had killed everyone else in his tribe, which had numbered 400 before California’s Gold Rush.

Alone and starving, Ishi surrendered to the conquering society. A sheriff saved him from still-trigger-happy locals, and news of the “wild man’s” appearance quickly drew the attention of academics in San Francisco.

Though Ishi was already past 50 when he surrendered, Fisher has him played by the strapping young Michael Vega, who like several others here has to participate in some notably vigorous flashback chase/fight scenes that take place all over (even just outside) the Rhino mainstage house.

During the period when Ishi hasn’t yet learned to express himself in English, his laconic thoughts are heard over the P.A. system.

He’s of more than just research value to ambitious Dr. Alfred L. Kroeber (Kevin Clarke), who sees him as a “centerpiece” acquisition for the museum he hopes wealthy Phoebe Apperton Hearst (Kathryn Wood) will fund. Ishi winds up literally housed in the Museum of Anthropology at UC San Francisco, eventually reduced to performing “shows” of exaggerated native behaviors.

He seems oddly content with this fish-out-of-water life, though he resists the efforts of Kroeber and colleagues to extract his full, tragic story. They view it as a hot commodity, while he sees it as the last remaining thing that is truly his own.

Stubborn and temperamental, well-meaning Kroeber doesn’t always have Ishi’s best interests at heart– nor those of his beloved wife Henrietta (Jeannette Harrison), a brightly argumentative partner Kroeber relies on. In their different ways, mild-mannered fellow anthropologist Thomas Waterman (Aaron Martinsen) and caustic physician Saxton Pope (Matt Weimer) have a keener eye for the real needs of Ishi.

Flashbacks limn successive versions of the tribe’s brutal end.En route, “Last of the Yahi” deftly reveals much about the slaughter of California’s myriad native societies (for some time the state government offered $5 per severed Indian head), conflicting cultural values and the marketing of knowledge.

Fluidly staged more or less in the round by Fisher himself, with platforms displacing two usual audience berths and no formal set, the show moves briskly through tactically and tonally diverse terrain.

But it grows less compelling after intermission, as equal emphasis on the Kroebers’ domestic strife — while interesting in itself — detracts from the focus on Ishi. Some overly obvious final speechifying drawing contemporary parallels could be modified and a few uninspired song interludes excised.

Led by Vega, Clarke and Harrison, thesps (all multicast beyond those previously mentioned) are fully committed, nimbly traversing a seriocomic text that can shift from social satire and broad-stroke caricature to naturalistic intimacy within a scene or three.

Ishi: The Last of the Yahi

Theater Rhinoceros, San Francisco; 112 seats; $35 top

Production

A Theater Rhinoceros presentation of a play in two acts by John Fisher. Directed by Fisher.

Creative

Set, Ben Sherris; costumes, Robert Horek; lighting, Dave Robertson; music, sound, Don Seaver; fight choreographer, Ryan Montgomery; production stage manager, Sarah Chase. Opened July 12, 2008. Reviewed July 27. Running time: 3 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

With: Kevin Clarke, Pamela Davis, Detroit George Dunwood, Jeanette Harrison, Chris Libby, Jorge Martinez, Aaron Martinsen, Jean Franco Pilas, Linda Wang, Michael Vega, Matt Weimer, Kirk Matthew White, Kathryn Wood.

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