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Arts and Entertainment

"The Frybread Queen" Succeeds As Surprising, Entertaining Drama

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Shyla Marlin, Elizabeth Frances, Jane Lind and Kimberly Guerrero in "The Frybread Queen." (Photo by Tony Dontscheff Photography)

Shyla Marlin, Elizabeth Frances, Jane Lind and Kimberly Guerrero in "The Frybread Queen." (Photo by Tony Dontscheff Photography)
The title of Carolyn Dunn's The Frybread Queen is mildly misleading. It's not really about frybread, the Native American staple, although there are several frybread recipes discussed. What the show is truly about is family, and the things people will do to keep it safe. Dunn's play, a world premiere by Native Voices at the Autry, is a successful blend of family comedy/drama and thriller, with an unexpected and intriguing detour into the supernatural. Director Robert Caisley and an accomplished quartet of actresses make this production both entertaining and dramatically compelling.

As the story begins, family matriarch Jessie (Jane Lind) is cooking and preparing for guests in her Arizona reservation home. The cause isn't particularly celebratory, however--guests are arriving for the funeral of her adult son. Carlisle (Shyla Marlin), Jessie's current daughter-in-law, and Annalee (Kimberly Norris Guerrero), ex-wife of the deceased, arrive together, prepared to weather Jessie's disdain for "city Indians." What Jessie doesn't know is that Carlisle and Annalee intend to bring Jessie's teenage granddaughter Lily (Elizabeth Frances) back home to L.A. with them, to free the girl from what they see as a vicious circle of drugs, alcohol and death. But Jessie has some secrets of her own…

Lind is believable throughout as the tough Jessie, but her dramatic scenes seem to work a bit better than the comedic ones. Marlin impresses as peacemaker Carlisle, solicitous of her sister-in-law and niece, and mesmerizes in a monologue where she describes gambling with the dead for her father's soul. Guerrero fully inhabits the ailing but fierce character of Annalee, and she makes the tragedy of the story manifest in her final expressions of horror and sadness. Frances, decked out in black lipstick and purple-streaked hair, is very funny as Lily, making the most out of a monologue where some Native American stereotypes are debunked.

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Director Caisley does strong work with his cast and he deftly navigates the shifts from realism to mysticism, but his blocking is occasionally questionable, with actors walking back and forth from inside to outside sets without acknowledging a wall or door. Dunn’s writing is funny and moving and has much to recommend it, but the play’s conclusion feels rushed and a bit over the top. The show is proficient in all tech aspects, with Jayson Ferguson’s evocative sound design of an oncoming storm a particular standout.

The Frybread Queen
Wells Fargo Theater @ The Autry National Center
Runs Thur.-Sat. 8 pm, Sat.-Sun. 2 pm, thru March 27
Tickets: $12-2; via (323) 667-2000, ext. 354 or online