Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” had its world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival this month, and a powerful premiere it was. Set initially in contemporary Manhattan, it follows the story of Jane Snake — an ambitious mathematician and Lenape woman — who is climbing the ladder at Lehman Brothers, the now defunct global financial company that was allowed to fail in 2008 during the subprime mortgage crisis.

As the story evolves, time and place begin to flow seamlessly between that “contemporary” American crisis and an earlier one, wherein the Dutch West India Company arrived in 1600s Manhattan — then known as Manahatta — to coerce and cajole the native Lanape into parting with their island for the princely sum of $24. As Snake wrestles with her conscience and climbs the corporate chain right up into the offices of the legendary and appalling CEO of Lehman, Dick Fuld, to warn him of the emerging meltdown, so to are we faced with the grim reality that such perverse redistribution of wealth is nothing new in the shameful history of white America.

Walls are built to keep people from homelands that were theirs long before arbitrary lines had been drawn by belligerent forces. The old and infirm lose their homes. People die for greed. America’s longstanding tradition of bodily abusing the poor so that the rich might stand on their backs is unflinchingly showcased in this powerful and timely play.

Shock doctrine policies are nothing new to anyone who doesn’t live at the very top of the American food chain. To be horrified by this play would be an undeniable indication of privilege. That said, the visceral physicality with which director Laurie Woolery stages her production does tend to leave one breathless and slightly nauseous.

The mood in the theater was an interesting one, and it seemed as though the mostly white audience was split in their receptivity to what they were seeing onstage. There was a sense of coming face to face with a repulsive personal history — of an ugly id being laid bare. That is as close to a perfect moment as real theater can come, and OSF can be lauded for continuing to stage plays that are more and more unflinching in their exposure of past transgressions.

This is not entertainment as usual. It is a bare-knuckled and bloody reckoning, a serious work of art. If you’re looking for “Mama Mia,” look elsewhere.

As Jane, Tanis Parenteau gives a strangely stoic performance for most of the show, perhaps designed to present as the unflappable link between past and present. As Jane’s sister, Debra, Rainbow Dickerson is excellent as the less successful sibling who stays back home. Steven Flores is a strong presence as Luke, a Lenape man who is straightforward in outlook and pure in heart, a combination which leads, of course, to dire consequences.

In his role as Dick Fuld — a man once described by Hank Paulson as a “bull poured into a suit” — Jeffrey King is spectacular, a ferocious and casually sadistic sociopath with a taste for the jugular. The perfect embodiment of a venal financial titan, King lurches through the play with a perverse velocity that flawlessly represents the perverted ideals of the rentier Establishment. David Kelly is great as the conscience of the white man, an Ichabod Crane-like church pastor who is quickly washed away in a sea of blood and corruption. Danforth Comins — so often cast in likeable roles — is disturbingly competent as Joe, a misogynistic and morally opaque toadie to the Lehman Brothers/Dutch West India Company corporate agenda.

Perhaps the most powerful performance in the play comes from Sheila Tousey as a tribal elder and mother to Jane and Debra. With only one season at OSF, Tousey is one to watch — her characterization of a morally centered and dignified woman whose life is based in tradition is heartbreaking and brilliant.

As conditions of morality become ever more eroded around the world in 2018, there are few places for a person to turn to when searching for an authentic experience. Theater is a beacon for truth in an America where lies and spin are becoming evermore sophisticated mechanisms for deception, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival is among the brightest of those beacons.

With “Manahatta,” the Company continues to elevate its reputation for excellent theater that might provide a counterbalance to all the white noise. Picasso said that “art is not made to decorate rooms, it is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.” As art goes, “Manahatta” is an excellent piece of ammunition against the current occupying forces.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.