White Buffalo
May 6, 2012
The Rogue in Purple Rose Theatre Co., Reviews, new/original plays

One man’s lighter-side news footnote is another’s religious phenomenon. Playwright Don Zolidis tasks one Midwestern family with comprehending, appreciating, and protecting another culture’s miracle in his redolent drama White Buffalo. Under the direction of Guy Sanville, the world-premiere production at Purple Rose Theatre Company uses mystic inquiries and Native American traditions to enhance its contemporary story of wayward characters looking for guidance.

Inspired by a real-life occurrence, the events of the play are launched by a single event: the birth of a pure white buffalo calf on a small Wisconsin farm. Single mother Carol Gelling (Michelle Mountain) and her teenaged daughter, Abby (Stacie Hadgikosti), recognize the remarkable beauty and rarity of the occurrence, but little do they know its portentous significance. The appearance of John Two Rivers (Michael Brian Ogden) briefly prepares them for an ensuing onslaught of publicity and visitors; as John explains, according to Sioux legend, the white buffalo signifies the return of an ancient savior. As the curious and the fervent descend on the farm by the thousands, the Gelling women must contend with the ways, good and bad, in which this miracle is altering their present — and how it can shape their future.

Natural influences and significant connections pervade the production, from the rushing wood-grain lines of Vincent Mountain’s set to the thrilling stormy bluster of Daniel C. Walker’s lighting and Quintessa Gallinat’s sound design. Properties designer Danna Segrest uses a blend of the traditional and contemporary to craft talismans that demonstrate the tremendous adulation of the white buffalo, emphasizing the sacred nature of the proceedings. Costumes by Christianne Myers provide sharp juxtaposition between the contemporary Western characters driving the story and the Native American spirituality at the periphery. The Sioux presence is embodied in five unnamed characters: among their contributions, drummer Gregory Butka adds music and stoic observance, Matthew David and Nate Mitchell take on storytelling duties to recount the white buffalo myth, and Meghan Thompson and Rainbow Dickerson use stunning small gestures to represent the heralded calf and her stalwart mother. Two clear camps are formed, with different staging rules that separate their realities, making the intersection of these disparate worlds all the more potent.

With an unprecedented opportunity closing the first act, the second examines the radiating complications of whether to seize it. At the center of the dilemma, Mountain gains the audience’s sympathy with a guarded, but not hardened, protective shell befitting Carol’s losses and ensuing struggles. Hadgikosti wears rebellion exceedingly well, balancing the black-and-white moral superiority of youth with beautiful conviction that dazzles in its purity. Sincere to a fault, Ogden does due diligence with a plot device in human form — the dual rivers of his surname could very well be Exposition and Love Interest. David Daoust brings an edge of glad-handing to interested buyer Anderson Wilkes, allowing his intentions to be interrogated with gently unsettling eagerness. Finally, the return of absent husband Mike (Alex Leydenfrost) hints at a terrible past that severed the Gelling family, and the hinted promise eventually finds an outlet. The play's latter scenes plunge into pathos, one wrenching sob story after another sure to excite viewers with a hankering for mega-catharsis.

The insight-via-exoticism approach rarely fails to generate a sticky imperialist byproduct, and White Buffalo is admittedly no exception, using ancient culture and tradition as a means to challenge its white characters. Where the production excels, however, is in its underlying intrigue of questions and answers. Weighty and burdensome as uncertainty and anticipation may be, the relief of knowledge comes with its own murky problems. As this show artfully illustrates, answers are not the same as solutions: they can be frustrating, incomplete, even unwanted, and most difficult of all, the next steps are up to us.

White Buffalo is no longer playing.
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