Friday, July 6, 2018

"Manahatta": Day 5, Play 5, Theatre Eddys at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Mary Kathryn Nagle

Steven Flores & Tanis Parenteau
Two American stories, four centuries apart, interlock in their telling, with characters, events, motives, triumphs, and tragedies strikingly similar in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta.  Now in an engrossing, enlightening, and emotional world premiere at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Manahatta links the lives of a modern, Native American family of the Lenape nation from Oklahoma with their ancestors who once lived on the island Manahatta, now known as Manhattan.  Director Lurie Woolery pieces their stories seamlessly in a continuous flow between geographies and eras as a cast of seven themselves switch from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries and back again, seemingly without a breath in between.  The parallels of family dynamics and dilemmas as well as the false promises and deep prejudices they face are astonishingly similar, leaving the very real question hanging in the air of how much has truly changed when in fact, everything has changed.

Tanis Parenteau
Jane -- a recent Stanford MBA graduate and gifted in financial mathematics -- is about to join the high-flying, manic-paced world of investment banking in Manhattan as a new hire of the prestigious Lehman Brothers.  She is leaving behind in Oklahoma a mother, Bobbie -- an elder in the present-day Lenape tribe of the Native American, Delaware Nation -- as well as a sister, Debra, also a Lenape woman and member of the Delaware Nation.  As Jane begins to rip her way through the dog-eat-dog, male-oriented world of derivatives, her relationship becomes distant and strained with her family, who believe she is leaving too far behind her ancestral traditions and beliefs. 

Tanis Parenteau, Jeffrey King & Danforth Comins
On the same, protruding stage of sand-colored wood where Scenic Designer Mariana Sanchez has placed a modern desk and leather chairs, she has also scattered implanted, huge rocks surrounded by pebbles and dirt.  Overlooking the entire setting is a massive back-wall where we at first see a forest-and-field panorama with a ripped section where one Native American man watches the stage.  To the side, another peeled-out frame pictures a Native American woman.  That same wall magically transforms into muted scenes of modern Oklahoma or of New York through the exceptional projections of Elizabeth Frankel and Leslie Ishii.  Those modern scenes serenely melt into the landscape of an island once known to its peoples as Manahatta at the time in the early 1600s when the Dutch West Indies Company was just arriving to a land populated only by native Lenape families.

Steven Flores & Tanis Parenteau
On this multi-serving stage, actors quickly switch to introduce us to another family -- a young Le-le-wá-yo, her sister Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i, and her Mother, who is a revered and wise elder of the Lenape.  Se-ket-tu-may-qua is a young Lenape man who loves Le-le-wá-you and who has learned to speak the tongue of the invading Dutch in order to trade furs with them.  Le-le-wá-you herself is ambitious, daring, and full of curiosity.  She convinces her male companion to teach her the white man’s strange tongue -- a learning session that is one of the most beautifully crafted scenes of the entire play, taking place on top of the modern office desk.  Le-le-wá-you too begins trading and bringing home much wampum to help provide for her sister and mother, both of whom are skeptical of her new ventures and of the white men. 

As Jane’s career soars through a crazy rollercoaster course, Le-le-wá-you’s life too becomes more exciting as she gains more confidence in her newly discovered skills of language and trade.  Conflicts with both their more traditional families occur while each also has a young man who supports her groundbreaking career and who shows feelings of affection for her as a woman.  Into each young woman’s life, ruthless, money-hungry, white men exert pressures and challenges.  And into each world, a major, earth-shattering shift occurs. 

Jeffrey King, Tanis Parenteau & Sheila Tousey
For Le-le-wá-you, the cataclysmic shift comes when the Dutch trick her family and Se-ket-tu-may-qua to sell them Manahatta for a few trinkets and guns, with the Lenape people not understanding the concepts of ownership or the sale of land since in their tradition, the land is their home and not their property.  With that sale comes the new rights of the Dutch to force taxes on all the fur trades, with a soon-realized threat by the Dutch of killing those Lenape who refuse to pay.  The tragic result is that continued life as it has been for generations on their ancestral homeland is now impossible for Le-le-wá-you and her family.

Parallel in the storytelling, the 2008 financial collapse in the subprime mortgage market burns a flaming path right into the pristine offices of Lehman Brothers and Jane’s once-meteoric career.  At the same time, an adjustable mortgage her Oklahoma mother has taken out to pay for a surgery of her now deceased father has soared with increasing interest to the point she can no longer pay, leaving the home of her mother’s grandparents at the grave risk of losing.

What is more striking in the two, unfolding stories than just the similarities of events and family dynamics are the attitudes and prejudices that we see born four hundred years ago and still playing out in our own world.  Phrases by the Dutch of “they all look alike” or of a modern white man in New York letting slip “just off the reservation” reveal similar, inbred prejudices of those people much more native to the Americas than the speakers.  When we see the Director of the Dutch West India Company as he tries to close the sale of Manahatta offer the Lenape family their first sips of brandy (promising “one of the greatest spirits we have”), we can only think of the lingering issues of alcoholism that so many Native America communities still suffer and the cheating promises that have made by white, greedy businessmen during the subsequent centuries.  Throughout the two stories, such startling and sad mirroring of attitudes occurs – including an expensive wall advocated by the Governor and then built in Manahatta to keep the Lenape away from the Dutch (i.e., the same wall of Jane’s Wall Street).

To a person, the ensemble relating both tales is exceptional in portraying the persona of both eras.  Tanis Parenteau is strikingly bold, inventive, and intelligent as both Jane and Le-le-wá-you.  Like her fellow actors, her spoken tone, command of language, and general demeanor do not change as she shifts characters and eras, making the clear point that the young, Lenape woman of the 1600s has the same innate abilities and wherewithal of the one in the 2000s – a concept foreign to all those invading Europeans who for hundreds of years would see the Native Americans as inferior in intelligence, morals, and conduct.

As the mother of both scenarios, Sheila Tousey is especially powerful and thus memorable past the final curtain call.  There is a depth to her soul and wisdom in both matriarchs.  When either speaks, one wants to lean forth and not miss one word.  The wry wit of Bobbie is particularly wonderful as she shocks a bit her visiting banker/pastor, Jonas (David Kelly), with one-liners like, “We Lenape don’t drink tea (because if) we drink too much tea, we drown in our teepee.”  Rainbow Dickerson is the second sister/daughter in both scenarios who is more conservative and cautious as well as honoring native traditions than her sibling but who also shows tenacity and tenderness in helping her family through tough times.

While Manahatta is to a large extent about two core families of women, it is the men surrounding them who offer great contrasts of honoring them or using/abusing them to the men’s capitalistic, self-centered interests.  Steven Flores is the caring, supportive companion/mate of Le-le-wá-you as well as Jane’s close friend, Luke -- and maybe possible mate someday -- bearing those same, selfless characteristics.  His portrayals are in great contrasts to the men Jeffrey King portrays:  The cynical, demanding, ruthless egomaniac CEO of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld, and the equally greedy Director of the Dutch West India Company, Peter Minuit.  As also Peter Stuyvesant, Dutch Governor of the now New Amsterdam Jeffrey King becomes the vicious perpetrator of murdering entire Lenape families (and of creating the term ‘red skin’ as the proof needed for settlers to attain bounty for killing the hated natives).  While he does not murder people, Mr. King’s Dick Fuld also watches lives ruined around him, readily willing to sacrifice whomever he must as soon as they are not helping his bottom-line.

Danforth Comins serves as a kind of go-between in both stories, showing, for example, some fascination and compassion as the Dutch fur trader Jakob for the Lenape while also helping Peter Minuit dupe them into selling their homeland.  As the CFO of Lehman’s, Joe -- who hires and initially manages Jane -- Mr. Comins has his moments of Wall Street bloodthirstiness; but he also has moments of camaraderie and compassion for the talents that Jane so ably begins to show.

The costumes that E.B. Brooks has so imaginatively created quickly transform from one era to the next; but as the stories progress and meld, some of the created wear begins to serve both stories equally well.  The lighting of James F. Ingalls shifts beautifully the mostly barren stage from modern offices and home to pre-colonist outdoors and abode, with the hues of daytime skies and nights blending especially beautifully into the panoramic, backdrop wall described earlier.  The music composed and rendered in sound design by Paul James Prendergast pays homage to the Lenape traditions while the harsher interruptions of modern-day sounds offer notable contrasts.

Manahatta bears little resemblance to the normal fare on a modern, theatrical stage.  There is a kind of flow in the dual storytelling along with a deep and obvious respect for ancestors and ancestral traditions that the Native American playwright has instilled in her work that is different in feel, emotion, and theme than we Americans normally see.  As a world premiere, one can only hope that Manahatta has long legs and sees many more follow-up productions across the nation, inspiring more stories of families and untold history to make their way into our national, shared story.

Rating: 5 E

Manahatta continues through October 27, 2018 at the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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