The Return of the Native
Heady satire takes hilarious and deadly aim at virtual "culture"
Published: October 27, 2010
By Eric Coble
Elliott Rauh has an impressive knack for knowing just how oversized a performance can be without it ballooning into buffoonery. In Single Carrot Theatre’s current production of Eric Coble’s Natural Selection, Rauh plays manly man Ernie Hardaway, a hunter/tracker of inventory for Culture Fiesta, a corporate theme park that offers what used to be called “indigenous people.” In Selection’s not-too-distant future, the entirety of American life has been podcasted, cubicle-ized, and made virtual. The “wild” is made up of unknown, feared territories. And if families and their kids want to know how people, such as Native Americans, used to live, Culture Fiesta needs men, such as Ernie, who venture out into the wild and bring back people who can be put on display. Ernie, however, isn’t some latter day Marlboro Man—his bravado can’t camouflage his overall ignorance. Think part Ernest Hemingway, part George W. Bush.
That inspired mix runs throughout the play. Natural is a scabrous, belly-laugh funny satire that throws poison dart after poison dart at a culture that is increasingly fast-foodified, Walmart-erized, blogified, Twitterized, or otherwise experienced through some kind of intermediary. Life is witnessed at a distance here, and to playwright Coble, that isn’t any kind of life at all.
SCT’s production, under the direction of Nathan Fulton, totally understands this idea. The roughly two-hour play moves with brisk confidence, skewering nearly everything in its path without ever resorting to cheap or convenient nihilism. It’s one of those rare chances to see a recent play, first produced in 2006, staged by a young company almost ideally suited for its thematic concerns.
Culture Fiesta needs a new member for its Native American Pavilion, so administrator Yolanda Pastiche (Lyndsay Webb) hires Ernie to head out to the Southwest to bag a body. She’s also making curator Henry Carson (Christopher Rutherford) go with him, much against his wishes. The bespectacled, nebbishy Henry doesn’t think he’s cut out for fieldwork: He knows all about the cultures, yes, but he should be at the rear with the gear, not on the frontlines. Besides, if he has to leave for a short time, his wife Suzie (Jessica Garrett) isn’t going to be happy, and will more than likely downgrade his status as BHOE—“best husband on Earth”—on her blog.
Out into the great Southwest they go, though, riding low in a helicopter through valleys as Ernie eagle-eye looks for targets and Henry tries not to vomit. A mishap lands the tranquilizer gun in Henry’s hands, and he shoots and brings in Zhao Martinez (Aldo Pantoja), an unemployed Mexican-American/Native American who was merely killing time at a relative’s pad on the reservation. To avoid getting into hot water with Yolanda, Henry agrees to pay Zhao to pretend to be a Native American for the pavilion as long as Zhao doesn’t let on that he’s not, you know, a native-born Native. Henry’s brush with real-life adventure, however, has left him changed. He’s starting to recognize that something about how he lives his life is off, and soon Zhao is starting to get the other living inventory at Culture Fiesta to realize that they shouldn’t settle for being exhibits in a living museum.
The small cast is strong. Zhao is the sort of character Pantoja can probably do in his sleep: impish and comic, but packing a curveball of poignancy when the time arrives. Garrett does a great neurotic, and Webb has fun as the corporate yes-woman Yolanda and even more fun as a helicopter pilot. Rauh, meanwhile, steals nearly every scene he’s in: Ernie as a satirical target is a bit of fish/barrel shooting, but when he’s realized with such barely contained energy, it’s a riot nonetheless.
This production belongs to Rutherford, though, and Henry’s path from obedient desk jockey to man of action is the journey playwright Coble asks his audience members to make too. Rutherford does a wonderful job of wrapping nervous anxiety around intellectual curiosity around an agitated id that almost screams to be unleashed. Henry is Natural Selection’s everyman, the guy that knows he doesn’t want to be an office widget but isn’t sure what to do about it. And this weekend is the last chance to watch him try to rediscover his inner human animal.
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