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'Blues' is funny but not fully realized

PROVIDENCE -- Native Canadian playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, whose comedy ''The Buz'Gem Blues" is receiving its regional premiere at Trinity Repertory Company, has done a lot of stand-up comedy and writing for television, and it shows. ''Buz'Gem" -- that's a hard G, and the word is Ojibway for ''sweetheart" -- has plenty of funny lines and comic situations. But it feels more like a string of sketches than a fully realized play.

''The Buz'Gem Blues" assembles six characters at ''The First Annual Elders Conference" at a Canadian university, each of them carrying a trunkload of cultural baggage. There's an older Ojibway woman who's there as a ''language expert" but is more interested in bingo, her wisecracking daughter who's getting over a divorce and declares herself ''on the Caucasian wagon," a Mohawk chef who's getting on in years but still spry, his young girlfriend who's proudly ''1/64 aboriginal," a Cree kid who styles himself The Warrior Who Never Sleeps, and a white anthropology professor named Savage who wants to interview all of them about their courting rituals.

Taylor has plenty of fun crashing these conflicted figures into one another, and his way with a one-liner and sharp eye for absurdity keep the laughs coming. But there's far too much awkward exposition, with each character all but reading a resume to introduce his or her background, cultural affiliations, and personality quirks. The play was reportedly an audience favorite in its staged readings at Trinity's 2001 and 2002 Theater From the Four Directions festivals of Native work, so it's all the more surprising that this clunky verbiage wasn't winnowed away before now.

The cast, broadly but efficiently directed by Kennetch Charlette of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, hits the laughs spot-on but has understandable trouble making the characters achieve more than two dimensions. Dennis Ambriz is pleasingly wry as the chef, Amos, and Darrell Dennis's Warrior goes from a hilarious sendup of self-conscious, identity-seeking youth to something more touching, nicely matched by Miriam Silverman's evolution in the wannabe role. Sheila Tousey, as the bingo-loving Ojibway, and Cheri Maracle-Cardinal as her daughter spar effectively, but there's an odd stiffness to many of their line readings. Timothy Crowe gamely plays the white straight man and even finds a touch of humanity inside his stuffed shirt.

Trinity provides its usual high level of technical support, with Michael McGarty's farce-friendly conference setting and Peter Sasha Hurowitz's clever sound design. William Lane finds the right costumes, including the weird mix of Native jewelry and a red Mounties jacket -- ''to show my oppressors that I don't fear them" -- that the young Warrior affects. And it's admirable the theater, which closes Oskar Eustis's last season as artistic director with this production, is working hard to develop Native American plays.

This one, though, leaves you wishing that the company had helped Taylor achieve a more consistent tone. Either he should dive fully into cross-cultural satire -- something for which he has a gift -- or he should dig more deeply into these characters, developing them as fully rounded people instead of sitcom cutouts. As it is, they're stranded between two worlds: not Native and Anglo, but TV and the stage.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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