Fisher's 'Ishi' opens at Theatre Rhino
by Richard Dodds
One of the most seemingly outlandish moments in Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, John Fisher's new play at Theatre Rhino, is one of the most easily verifiable. Type "Ishi" and "Orpheum Theatre" into Google, and you'll quickly come across a 1911 photograph of the famous Yahi tribesman in a box seat for a vaudeville show, with a smiling Phoebe Apperson Hearst in fox stole seated right behind him. Never mind that the SF Examiner, published by Phoebe's son William Randolph Hearst, had a few months before called Ishi "a savage of the most primitive type
Another member of this theater outing was anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who saw in Ishi a chance to get major donations from Phoebe Hearst for his ambitious plans for a state-of-the-art anthropological museum at the University of California. Did it work? On Wednesdays through Sundays you can visit, for free, the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the Berkeley campus.
That there was a lot riding on Ishi, captured when he wandered into Oroville in search of food, is a central point of Fisher's play that documents horrific historical details of government-sponsored genocide (you could get 50 cents for an Indian scalp from officials in Chico, but for an entire head, California paid $5) and speculates on how Ishi's handlers manipulated his story for public consumption. What if, the play asks, this beloved figure had incidents in his past so dark that, if widely known, the golden goose would become an albatross?
There are numerous other themes and scenarios running through Fisher's three-hour-plus play that he has staged in an intriguingly reconfigured space in the upstairs theater. A program bibliography denotes basic sources — including, of course, Ishi in Two Worlds by Kroeber's widow — but Fisher freely speculates on the domestic life of Kroeber (a pompous but conflicted Kevin Clarke) and his ailing first wife (a feisty, sympathetic Jeanette Harrison), his debates with colleagues (the capable Aaron Martinsen and Matt Weimer) over ethics versus self-serving practicalities, and the very thoughts going on in Ishi's mind after he is brought to San Francisco to be studied.
Indeed, in a play that includes flashbacks of brutal fights, incest, emasculation, and the drowning of babies, perhaps Fisher's most audacious device is Ishi's internal commentary, provided in recorded voice-overs, as he reacts with deadpan wryness to his new companions and surroundings. Donuts and sex are high among his thoughts, as well as a debate with himself on how much to reveal of his former life with his decimated tribe. Michael Vega provides a strong, physically dynamic, and increasingly complex characterization to the role of the deceptively simple Ishi.
It's a kind of psychological cat-and-mouse game that Ishi plays with his frustrated inquisitors, and we see scenes from his past replayed as his story changes. "Stories are dangerous," Ishi says, and to prove his point, he insists that his questioners reveal secrets about themselves before he will share any of his own.
It's a wildly ambitious, frequently fascinating work that Fisher has created, occasionally undercut by a few jarring anachronisms, an awkward framing device, and some drawing-room flab. Though the staging of the flashbacks too often seems like a rowdy game of cowboys and Indians, Fisher has managed to provide momentum and continuity as the scenes jump from place, time, and areas of the theater, and his large cast is solidly on top of the material.
It has been noted by Fisher himself that, as artistic director of Theatre Rhino, he found himself in "the weird position of greenlighting something that may not be gay enough" for a queer theater. There is, in fact, no gay content in Ishi, and while Fisher's view of history is more questioning than queer, it can hardly be called straight.
Ishi: The Last of the Yahi will run at Theatre Rhino through July 20. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 861-5079 or go to www.therhino.org.