Then and Now: OSF’s Manahatta is a Moving Multi-Era Layered Exploration
It seems like there should be some deeper significance that Manahatta, by Mary Kathryn Nagle, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Thomas Theatre on April 1, both April Fools’ Day and Easter this year. Ultimately, it is a play that is remarkable as much for its polytemporal structure as for its willingness to tackle weighty socio-historical themes.
No, there is nothing foolish about this production. It deals with the history of the Lenape, the original Native American inhabitants of New York City, and more specifically Manhattan, in a most innovative, multi-contextual, and moving way. There are essentially two parallel stories going on; one during the early 1600s, when Manhattan was purchased by the Dutch for a pittance, and another in modern times. The play hops back and forth with increasing frequency as the plot gains momentum, maintaining the same actors in characters that are like eerie echoes, and perhaps literal ancestor/descendants, of each other.
The main protagonist, Jane Snake (Tanis Parenteau), is a young woman of Lenape descent who leaves her family and local life in rural Oklahoma to take a high profile financial job on Wall Street. This move is loaded with tension and irony, given that this is a return to her ancestors’ homeland in an era when any such links are all but forgotten (at least on the surface). Jane’s mother Bobbie gives her daughter the simple instruction: “Go home to Manahatta,” a sendoff that poignantly sets the tone for what is to come.
While Jane is off to Manahatta, back in Oklahoma, several family issues are coming to a head, notably the foreclosure of Jane’s mother’s house, the death of her father, and the struggles of her sister to preserve and clarify the family’s links with the past. Gradually, the play spins out of these modern concerns and unfolds the story of the family’s ancestors as they meet, trade with, and finally war with the alternately friendly and ruthless Dutch prospectors who come to exploit the fur trade in the region.
The play resonates beautifully on many levels at once, and the OSF actors competently handling the material. Having grown up and attended school in the New York area myself, I felt especially edified by the experience of watching this play. Though tragic, the play ultimately feels like a polycultural affirmation and a wake-up call.
1:30 and 8 pm, through October 27
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer Street, Ashland
$37 – $135