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REVIEW: “Landless” by Larissa FastHorse AlterTheater Ensemble in San Rafael and San Francisco CA


REVIEW: “Landless” by Larissa FastHorse
AlterTheater Ensemble in San Rafael and San Francisco CA


Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

“Landless” Is Cynical, Inspiring

“Landless” is a unique bit of pop-up theater being presented by the AlterTheater Ensemble in two Bay Area locations. The first production, at an empty storefront in San Rafael (unusual for the North Bay), is the world premiere. It continues its run in San Francisco at the ACT Costume Shop Theater. “Landless” explores the meaning of interdependence, community, home, friendship and family, with touches of romance and villainy. Through each character we experience what it means to be landless, in different ways, and witness the demise of the middle class. 

Larissa FastHorse, AlterTheater, San Rafael, CACommissioned by AlterTheater, the award-winning Larissa FastHorse, a Lakota tribe playwright and choreographer, wrote “Landless” based on conversations with business owners and residents of San Rafael. Using the flashback narrative device, she tells the poignant story of Matthew’s Mercantile, a venerable Main Street shop in Anytown USA, which has been run by four generations of the same family.  But after 120 years, it has reached the end of the road, losing business for years to big-box stores. Elise, the aging shop owner, is forced to liquidate, losing both her business and her home. The longtime relationship between Elise (Patricia Silver) and Josiah (Nick Garcia) has become like family. Josiah came to work at the shop as a lonely ten-year-old right after Elise’s father died, and stayed for more than 20 years, helping run the shop. Elise has been helping a homeless man, Mr Harrison (Michael Asberry), to find work and shelter at her store. He is able to retain his dignity and sense of self-worth because of her kindness. Every item in the shop has a backstory, triggering flashback-time travel.

Emilie TalbotJosiah and his family are prominent local members of a “landless” Native American tribe (Josiah: “It’s like being born royalty”). The tribe has just regained Federal standing and now has access to funds to build a casino and hotel. Josiah dreams of great riches and hopes to be able to help his beleaguered friend Elise keep her shop. Complications arise when the tribe runs into roadblocks courtesy of the ruthless owner of a neighboring business (Emilie Talbot). Josiah loses his new-found identity, Elise loses her business and her home, but in the end they both accept their new realities with joy and a profound sense of renewal.

Asberry (acclaimed for his recent work in “Fences” at Marin Theatre Company) has a chameleon-like talent and convincingly plays a number of vividly-drawn characters, including a goofy teenager in love, Josiah’s disillusioned father and Elise’s gentle and caring homeless companion Mr Harrison.

Michael J Asberry, Patricia Silver

Talbot as Natalie, excellent in this and other small roles, offers an honest interpretation. You can feel Natalie’s frustration and raw survival instinct, compelling her to hurt others to protect herself and her family. Garcia delivers a fine performance for the most part, but his technique falls short when he plays Josiah at age ten - it’s a stretch to see the bearded actor as a child. Silver as Elise is a good enough actress, but does not convincingly give the illusion of youth in her flashback scenes. Capturing youth is a difficult task for any mature actor.

Capably directed by Ann Brebner and Jeannette Harrison, the San Rafael location is an imaginative, ambitious production. It’s presented on a shoestring in an intimate and bare-bones venue that seems especially suited to the story. Props are donated hand-me-downs from local thrift stores and fit the setting perfectly. However, issues with the lighting and sound system make it seem inadequate to the task. There’s a grating noise and flashes of light to indicate flashbacks in time, effects that seem ineffective and irritating at the same time. Sometimes the flashbacks, which may be a bit too frequent and confusing to the story, can challenge the audience’s imagination. Transitions are a little abrupt and sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re in the present or the past. Overall, this is a very risky yet thoughtful production that addresses with brutal honesty how people feel about becoming “Landless”, with a strangely uplifting and surprising ending.

Photos by David Allen Studio

In San Rafael

Now through February 1, 2015
8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays , 2:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $25 

AlterTheater transforms storefronts in downtown San Rafael’s pedestrian shopping district into temporary performance spaces.
Location: 1619 Fourth Street (at G Street, next to Johnny Doughnuts), San Rafael, CA 

INFO:  415-454-2787


In San Francisco

February 12 through February 22, 2015
8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays , 2:30 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $25 

ACT Costume Shop Theater
1117 Market Street, San Francisco, CA

INFO: 415-454-2787


Altertheater Ensemble
1337 Fourth St, Suite A
San Rafael, CA 94901