That fear, however, would probably be less immediately visible if the play heís carrying were better equipped to support itself. Vaulting in style between serious drama and stand-up comedy as blithely as it does locations between reservations and Vancouver, Dennisís play suffers from the same affliction his character, Simon Douglas, and other Natives face in the modern world: a lack of an identifiable identity. Simon spent his life either being quietly ashamed of his upbringing, or making jokes of it to better attract the popular kids (especially girls) - a lifestyle Dennis himself has been all too ready to adopt as his own.
Dennis adroitly conveys the sense of close-knit communities and societal poverty that have diminished his people since the Westward Expansion of the 1800s, and that have cast a blight on an inherently spiritual people. Growing up, Simon forsook one of his closest friends, mocking him (and partially encouraging his suicide) for being gay. He lost his virginity to a fly-by-night teen tart who wasnít afraid to let men use her when necessary. When older, he and his friends (one of whom was the son of the chief) thought nothing of driving drunk, with appropriately disastrous consequences.
Even after he moved to the West Coast and pursuing a career as an actor, Simon didnít come to terms with his upbringing. The surge of popularity in Native actors in the wake of Dances With Wolves energized him for a while, but when that dried up, so did he. He turned to drugs and alcohol, which gradually deprived him of both his livelihood and the love of his life. Battling his own sense of entitlement as well as othersí garden-variety prejudices, Simon eventually turned to rehab as the only remaining way he might be able to reclaim himself and the soul he long ago abandoned.
Simonís story is frequently compelling, and if Dennis is not skilled enough a voice artist to sell the many impressions he attempts, heís a charismatic and energetic narrator of Simonís myriad misfortunes. But as a playwright, he fails at what would seem to be the playís most important task: connecting Simonís disintegration with that of his own heritage and beliefs. This is a gentle undercurrent throughout, represented primarily by Dennisís placing stones downstage to represent those around Simon who have died, but itís scarcely addressed directly until the playís waning seconds.
For it to have the emotional impact it should, it needs to be rescued from beneath the litter strewn about the rest of the tale. Several minutes (of 100) do not need to be sacrificed for a one-man burlesque delivered by the Irish priest who baptizes Simon, for example. And the compacting of some of his school and shooting-up travails would only help lighten whatís often a very heavy and listless load. Director Herbie Barnes would also do well to focus his rather scattered staging and work with Dennis on modulating his energy - you're never guided as effortlessly from moment to moment as you should be.
Then thereís Dennisís confidence problem, particularly in the first third of the show. Hopefully, Barnes can assist Dennis in overcoming his aversion to theatrical intimacy and eliminate (or at least reduce) the deer-in-the-headlights mannerisms that what should be an unsettling show instead uncomfortable to watch. Dennis shouldnít worry: Once he warms to the showís rigors, his laid-back talent and grace with the audience do shine through. If he and Barnes can tighten up the script and shed additional light on the larger meaning of Simonís struggles, the rest of Tales of an Urban Indian could prove to be every bit as engaging.
Tales of an Urban Indian