Native Voices at the Autry Presents the 20th Anniversary Production Off the Rails by Randy Reinholz
“In Off the Rails I’ve relocated Shakespeare’s conflicts to the American frontier. We see love, righteousness, faith, and mercy compete for provenance in the foundation of a country. Adapting Shakespeare for a Native theatre company provides the structure and historical distance needed to explore why so much of the Native American story is missing from U.S. history,” said Reinholz, Native Voices Producing Artistic Director. “A key issue in Indian country today is the contradictory legacy and cultural damage of the American Indian boarding school system, whose motto was 'Kill the Indian, Save the Man.' In a moment in time when many Americans were advocating for the physical extermination of the remaining 218,000 American Indians it might seem that cultural genocide was the more benevolent choice. Important? Yes. Heavy? Not in this production. Think Blazing Saddles meets Shakespeare—with Native Americans taking the reins.”
Set in the nineteenth century in Genoa, Nebraska, Off the Rails focuses on Momaday (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), a young boarding school student who has been sentenced to death for impregnating an Irish girl. Brothel owner Madame Overdone (Shyla Marlin), her working girls, and saloon patrons hatch a plot to rescue Momaday. Key to his salvation is his older sister Isabel (Elizabeth Frances), a graduate of a boarding school. To save her brother, Isabel must win the affections of Captain Angelo (Michael Matthys), the new superintendent of the school. Angelo’s Victorian rules for life are threatened by his primal lust when the women in town combine forces to challenge his brief authority and save Momaday.
Off the Rails tackles the controversial and rarely discussed topic of Indian boarding schools. Typically absent from our nation’s history books, schools affected generations of Native Americans in unimaginable ways. Culture and identities were stripped, languages lost, lifelong friends were made, and unions were strengthened. Off the Rails dramatizes the polarizing national tensions in an audience-friendly way by combining knee-slapping comedy, vibrant music, and a set that transports theatregoers to 1886.
INTERVIEW: Reinholz sheds light on American Indian boarding schools in new play
By John Soltes
“I think it’s really good for people who are activists to strongly consider how people can hear information, and again this play airs on the side of entertainment,” Reinholz said. “So you’ve got a lot of people thinking about, well, this stew is the United States and how we came together. For me, it’s not so much the horror of having killed all those people and the very frank discussion to kill the rest of them. I think it’s a miracle that we didn’t kill them all as a country. I just think, wow, there’s something to celebrate in that.”
The playwright said the adaptation, which is gaining interest from major theater companies, is approximately 20 percent Shakespeare and 80 percent invention.
“It’s not all in iambic [pentameter] because Shakespeare’s characters are all speaking in prose, particularly the clowns and in the bawdy scenes,” he said. “So that all feels like regular prose, but there are Shakespeare themes woven into much of the play. So the kids coopt lines from Romeo & Juliet, the young lovers. The woman who’s running the bar compares herself to Gertrude in Hamlet, so there’s all these coopting of lines. And that really comes from a very Deadwood kind of approach to the work. These people, their aspirational literature in the Old West would have been the King James Bible and a Collected Works of Shakespeare, so they would have been imitating those speech patterns.”
After raising enough funds for the Native Voices production—a campaign that included $20,000 in donations through Indiegogo—Reinholz said he’s hopeful the play will live on. “That was really our hope is to make something that colleges could look at and think about using it as a teaching tool, both to teach the history and the language and the performance value,” he said. “It just seems to be resonating. It’s because of this company that’s really supported the whole project from the beginning and really just threw themselves into it.”
Randy Reinholz is the writer and director of "Off The Rails," which will be presented as part of the Native Voices Series at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles Feb. 25-March 15.
By Michelle Mills
“Native Americans have often been called invisible in American theater,” Reinholz said. “Doing something muscular with Shakespeare is a high bar in the theater world. So the idea that, can Indians really handle language?—well, here we’re going to show you, can Indians really do something with a classic?”
Presenting a great play, Reinholz said, shows that Native Americans—or anyone—can think in many different ways.
In turn, Reinholz said that the Native Voices company is diverse, boasting 100 professional performers, many of whom are multiracial. “Off the Rails” alone has a cast that includes actors who are full-blooded Native American and of mixed European and Native American descent, as well as African-Americans, Chinese and Anglos.
“It’s what the West might have looked like,” Reinholz said. “We tend to romanticize it and think of it as a rugged Anglo view, but there were Buffalo Soldiers out there, you had the immigrants and the indentured servants that were working on building railroads, you had former slaves. You had a really diverse mix-up and then you had the indigenous folks.”
Autry’s “Off the Rails” Shakes Up the Old West
Christopher Salazar is especially strong as a wise aide, Román Zaragoza and Robert Vestal create a charming pair of scapegraces, and LeVance Tarver holds stage winningly as a chorus cowboy. Brian Joseph provides beautifully apt music. And of course Native Voices has Grandfather (Duane Minard) lending his dignity and blessing.
At times, the exuberance runs a bit off the rails, with almost constant movement (note to director Chris Anthony: Still moments run deep) and some odd, unmotivated blocking. But that’s a small matter.
Off the Rails gets the big things right. It’s colorful, lively and inventive theatre, and a bold satire our culture needs for healing. Grandfather Willie would be proud.
By Deborah Klugman
Though all the performances are capable, the best of them emerge from the supporting ensemble. Under Chris Anthony's direction, they include the versatile and very funny Barton, who, besides the pompous general, plays a mentally suspect French executioner; Christopher Salazar as a decent government official dismayed by Angelo’s doings; and Robert Vestal as Pryor, the smart-aleck who takes over the saloon and brothel after Angelo declares that women—in this case Madame Overdone—may no longer own a business.
So many beautifully talented actors I can't mention all of their merits--such a well written adaptation of Shakespere's Measure for Measure. I wish my Elders from local Pechanga and Soboba could see .... Hope you can experience this multi cultured play with a Native American theme.
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz © 2015