Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Manahatta,” a chronicle of old and new Manhattan, is a story of complex cross-cultural communication, ambition, moral ambiguity and old and new currencies. The premiere, directed by Laurie Woolery and written by Mary Kathryn Nagle, opened in the Thomas Theatre last week.
Jane Snake wins a position at Lehman Brothers in 2008. She can see the financial imbalance of the derivatives market but trusts that Lehman is not culpable, protected in its market position. Jane is completely out of touch, fully absorbed in the nobility and importance of being the first Lenape on Wall Street. At home, her father has died, her mother can’t pay the bills and the town’s choirmaster (also the banker) stays the day for a time by refinancing the family home with an adjustable rate mortgage.
There’s a back story, too, time shifting between 2008 and 1696, when the Dutch West India Co. installed Peter Stuyvesant as New Amsterdam’s director-general. In this parallel story, the Dutch bring trade, religion and death to the Lenape, forcing the native people from the place they know as Manahatta.
Tanis Parenteau, playing the role of Jane Snake in Manhattan and Le-le-wa’-you in Manahatta, is brilliant, on fire with the passion of newness and opportunity. It is this character that surfaces the notion of moral ambiguity in the production. Snake is certainly aware that her worlds are changing and that she must change, too.
The roles of Peter Minuit, Peter Stuyvesant and Dick Fuld, Lehman’s CEO, are played by Jeffrey King. King’s roles are clearly designed to place personal gain and success above all other values. There is no ambiguity in this role and King plays these scenes straight, with determined, self-interest and the brash self-confidence of the supremely successful. As Lehman’s fortunes decline, King becomes a caricature of that NYC ball buster, throwing tantrums as his millions vanish.
Each of the 1696 and 2008 role pairings are intentionally similar. Sheila Tousey and Rainbow Dickerson play Lenape women in Manahatta and again in Oklahoma. In both roles they represent traditional values and demonstrate the importance of preserved heritage. While Jane sees objects as currency, opportunity and wealth, her family understands the higher spiritual nature that these objects represent.
One is tempted to name the bad guy in “Manahatta,” but evil is diffused and it is difficult to assign culpability. If “Manahatta” has a villain, it is in the kindly mannered characters played by David Kelly. In both roles, as Oklahoma choirmaster and banker or Manahatta pastor, Kelly deliberately manipulates and deceives those he is charged with caring for, all in the name of a higher good.
If “Manahatta” has a hero, it is Steven Flores. Whether in the role of Luke in Oklahoma or Se-Ket-tu-may-qua in Manahatta, Flores is realistic, cautious and very, very aware of the dangers facing his communities.
Language serves to obfuscate and confuse throughout the production. The native Lenape and Dutch West Indies exchange words and goods but meanings are defined within a cultural context. The language of financial mathematics and derivatives separate Jane from her family, distancing her from their circumstances. Jane’s message of paper earnings dupes the public. The details of an adjustable rate mortgage are as incomprehensible to Tousey’s character in Oklahoma as the notions of rent or sale or lease or use are to her character in Manahatta.
“Manahatta’s” time shifts are fascinating and well-signaled and these skilled OSF actors move seamlessly between the centuries. Bare feet, bird songs and trees place the scene in Manahatta. Christian Louboutin heels, street sounds and cityscape projections make it clear we are on Wall Street. And when Jane changes her heels for flats, we know she’s at home in Oklahoma. OSF’s technical staffers have outdone themselves with these techniques, keeping costumes, stage and props neutral and easily transformed.
“Manahatta” presents an easily digestible slice of history that may not be familiar to all. One narrative is mythologized, facts and voices lost to time, resurrected from oral traditions and inference. That parallel narrative, of ambition, loss and a global financial collapse, is all too recent.
Director Woolery considers “Manahatta” a cautionary tale and it is that — lessons not learned and twists of time that curl back on themselves. Perhaps another message is that individual responsibility and accountability are essential at the most basic, fundamental level — one person with another, within family, within community.
“Manahatta” runs about 95 minutes with no intermission and continues in the Thomas Theatre through Oct. 27. There will be a sign-interpreted performance on May 26. For more information or tickets, call the OSF Box Office at 800-219-8161 or visit www.OSFAshland.org.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at email@example.com.