BY DYLYN PETERSON
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
“They Don’t Talk Back” endeared itself to me as soon as I stepped foot into Perseverance Theater.
The set design was incredible. It more than accomplished its job of looking like a medium-sized house in a small Southeast Alaska village. The attention to detail impressed me; a small piece of carpet was duct taped to the wooden floor to be used for drying feet, for example, or the unlabeled cardboard box where one of the leads keeps their NES cartridges. One of the bedrooms doesn’t even have a door, just a hanging sheet. I can’t tell you how many times I saw stuff like that in my time in the villages.
The technical elements deserve praise, as well. The grandfather, Paul, who is structurally the main character, gives a soliloquy in Tlingit, and subtitles were projected on one of the walls. Unfortunately, the wall they chose was obscured for the majority of the audience (I, myself, up-front and in the middle of the theater, had to lean over to see it), but I’m guessing something about the geometry of the room didn’t give them any other options. There was also a deluge of impressive special effects audio syncing, from televisions playing to telephones ringing to the sound of drums, without even the slightest delay.
The actors, too, were incredible. I don’t think one line was messed up, no ums or uhs that shouldn’t have been there. They even pulled off slaps and punches without looking fake or set-up in any significant way. One of the most impressive examples was when Edward delivered a Raven story to a character in the hospital. His actor, Kholan Studi, had to switch between Raven, a woman, and a narrator, all while still being in-character as Edward and portraying them as Edward would. It was some Split-level stuff.
The plot of the play is pretty basic. A seventeen-year-old boy, Nick, moves from Juneau to an unnamed village to live with his grandparents after his mother gets into some legal trouble. He takes up fishing work, starts going to church, and watches Wrestlemania a lot. “They Don’t Talk Back” Playwright Frank Kaash Katasse, in a visit to a UAS creative writing class, said that “whenever the play comes to any local village, the residents are certain that it takes place there,” which speaks volumes about the play’s verisimilitude.
Katasse described the play as feeling “a bit like a sitcom,” which I agree with. If it is a sitcom, it’s a good one, with universally likeable and interesting, dynamic characters. About halfway through, it begins feeling more directed and singular. There is a tragic story filled with complexity I can’t comment on without an anthropology degree. However, if the play were just a series of funny, well-written episodes broken up by monologues and traditional dances, it probably would’ve fared just as well.
Speaking of the monologues, I did have a bit of a problem with them. A couple of them were amazing, the one from which the name of the play comes from stands out, in particular. Howerver, a couple didn’t seem to have any connection to the main narrative or fit with the characters who gave them. Nick’s father visits, for example, and tells a story about being in Operation Desert Storm. While I liked his performance and enjoyed it, it felt like even more of an episode than most of the rest of the play. It could’ve been removed without changing the main plot, or put in another place.
I was also confused about precisely when the play takes place. There are hints (for example, Nick’s grandfather watches Wrestlemania VI repeatedly on VHS, which took place in 1990, although the characters do refer to what was at that time the WWF as WWE, and that name change took place in 2002), but nothing I could think of that’s definitive. This isn’t strictly an “issue,” but it is something fun to think about and struggle with.
Overall, I really enjoyed “They Don’t Talk Back.” It continues to strengthen my faith in Juneau’s theater culture, and its use of (and normalization of) Alaska Native culture was awesome and refreshing. I give it six old-Nintendo-games out of seven.