“Well, I don’t know exactly what I expected,” Eleanor began, as they walked out of the Thomas Theatre, and back into the courtyard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “I guess I thought it would be preachier.”
“It’s still sorta preachy,” Dania contended. “In that it has a message.”
“If that’s your bar for ‘preachy,'” Gwen replied, with a motion back towards the theater, “then any play with a message could be described that way.”
“I just mean it had a really clear message right up front,” Dania continued. “About land ownership and how the government treats Native Americans. I didn’t hate it, it wasn’t 1980s-PSA-level or something.”
“I agree that Nagle does an excellent job of never stating her intentions with the play outright in dialogue,” Gwen commented. “It makes you feel for the protagonist, and her family, without ever going into the history of how they’ve been oppressed.”
Eleanor’s eyebrows fell low, parsing Gwen’s words. “Except she definitely does,” Eleanor finally replied. “Discussing the history is literally half of the play.”
“Besides –– okay, yes,” Gwen retreated. “Half of the play takes place in the 17th century. What I mean to say is that Nagle allows the audience to fill in the gaps between that time period and the more modern one. It’s a play that relies on an audience’s prior knowledge –– and to a degree, prior guilt –– about Native American displacement in order to pack a greater punch.”
“Okay, that I can agree on,” Eleanor said. “Why can’t you just say things clearly the first time, Gwen?”
“It’s a complicated show, these are my initial reactions,” she defended.
“I had questions about the love story,” Dania added. “Like, was that supposed to be a larger part of it?”
“Which love story?” Eleanor asked, only moments before remembering. “Ah, yes, that one.”
“See, you sort of forget about it,” Dania said. “Like, I was sure that was going to be a bigger part of the story, but after she learns English in the 1600s section, the romance basically disappears.”
“Except for hints that it continues in the present day scenes,” Gwen pointed out. “Between Luke and Jane.”
“Was that hinted at?” Eleanor asked.
“Yeah, I missed that, if that was a thing.”
“It’s subtle,” Gwen said. “Perhaps it was the actors, not the script. But I got something –– he chases her around her office when he visits.”
“They grew up together, they’re friends,” Eleanor said.
“Isn’t that why he visits at all?” Eleanor asked. “Because she’s the first Lenape from Oklahoma to make it to Wall Street? I read it as interest in her job.”
“Isn’t it crazy that they’re literally doing Oklahoma! with no Native American roles across the street?” Dania asked. “Like, they had to have planned that.”
“They have one Native American actor in Oklahoma!,” Gwen said, flipping open her program. “Where is it, I saw the name…”
“They put a lot of consideration into season selection,” Eleanor said. “I’m sure they noticed that Oklahoma! was playing alongside a play literally set in Oklahoma.”
“Manahatta is more dramatic, though,” Dania said. “In that it’s literally a 90-minute drama about home and land ownership.”
“Well, when you phrase it like that, it sounds uninteresting,” Eleanor commented. “You have to mention the plot about the mortgage crisis, the dual time periods, the way everything flows really quickly. It’s super theatrical for a plot that could have been played totally straight.”
“Jen Olivares,” Gwen answered. “As We’wha. I presume the role is named something else in the script of Oklahoma!”
“They’re also not gay in the script of Oklahoma!,” Eleanor added. “They changed the script a lot.”
“The point is,” Dania continued. “It’s cool that they’re happening together.”
“What did you think about the design for Manahatta?” Eleanor asked. “That huge, expansive set for a seven-actor play.”
“They used it effectively,” Gwen said. “It wouldn’t hurt the play if you staged it in a smaller space, but because the Thomas is such a deep thrust when you configure it like that, it gave them a lot of room to move around. The stage pictures, especially when characters from different time periods were onstage at the same time, ended up being really impactful. The final image, specifically.”
“I had questions about exactly how the parallels happen,” Dania wondered. “I mean, I get the basic ‘everyone is two people in either time period’ thing, but sometimes it’s weird. Like, when Lehman is collapsing, and Jane is saving it, but then Past Luke –– what’s his name?”
“Se-ket-tu-may-qua,” Gwen read.
“He’s getting attacked,” Dania said. “But it’s Jane who –– you get why I’m confused.”
“I totally get it,” Eleanor agreed. “Although I’m honestly going to say I loved that part. It’s so emotionally conflicting. The whole concept for the show provides such an interesting Catch 22, emotionally. We want Jane to succeed in the banking world. But it’s aligned with the Dutch West India Company in the other time period, as the power structure. But they’re obviously bad ––”
“So is the bank, though,” Dania said. “I mean, it’s a bank.”
“It’s interesting that the play doesn’t focus on that element –– the ethics of working at a bank,” Gwen commented. “Not that Jane is responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis, but compared with what’s going on with her mother in Oklahoma, she’s not part of the solution.”
“Did her mother’s loan go up because of the crisis, though?” Eleanor asked. “I read that that was happening anyway, because Mr. Good Samaritan Choir Banker White Guy tried to help but didn’t realize she couldn’t pay.”
“I knew that was going to happen,” Dania commented, shaking a fist at David Kelly in the abstract. “The moment he said, ‘loans for people with no credit,’ I was like, ‘the play ends with her losing the house.’ Called it.”
“It’s slightly more complex than that,” Eleanor said. “I thought Luke was going to do more in the play to help her out.”
“Only so much he can do against a bank,” Gwen said.
“Well, the mother has that talk –– that actress for the mother, by the way,” Eleanor shifted. “She was fantastic.”
“Super funny, but also super honest the whole time,” Dania agreed. “Is she in anything else at OSF this year?”
Gwen flipped through the program again. “Sheila Tousey –– she’s also in Othello. Yeah, she really grounded the whole play.”
“So she has that scene with Luke, where she’s talking about walking in two worlds,” Eleanor continued. “How he can be part of the white people’s banking system, while also standing up for the Native American community. And the plot doesn’t dig super far into that question, but in a way, that’s sort of what the entire play is about. Jane trying to live in both worlds, and how the two –– well, they’re not exactly in opposition, but they conflict in unexpected ways.”
“They conflict directly in the past scenes,” Dania pointed out. “When the Dutch basically steal all the land by tricking them into selling Manahatta, and then start killing them when the Lenape refuse to pay taxes that no one told them about.”
“That scene is so carefully written, too,” Gwen commented. “The way that the Dutch are saying they’ll trade for Manahatta, and Luke –– or Luke as Se-ket-tu-may-qua –– translates it as trade on Manahatta. Both groups would say they traded fairly.”
“I did appreciate that the play contains so little ‘injustice porn,'” Dania said. “Like, there’s one scene of the Dutch being openly racist towards the Lenape, but from then on, the issues are trade, or whatever.”
“Nagle’s use of language is inconsistent, but clearly intentional,” Gwen continued. “Sometimes the Lenape speak their language, but in that scene, everyone speaks English ––”
“Everyone is heard in English,” Eleanor clarified. “They still speak Lenape, except Se-ket-tu-may-qua. So Luke is still living in between both worlds, translating.”
“So is the audience, honestly,” Gwen said. “Nagle’s construction of the scene doesn’t justify or present the Dutch as fair, but it lets the audience hear both sides of the story. The Dutch are trying to be fair but, because of their ignorance, end up as colonial oppressors.”
“You know what else I liked?” Dania said. “Small thing, but relevant? The modern-day story is about Jane working her way up in a bank with two white dudes in positions of power over her, and not once was I afraid they were going to assault or take advantage of her.”
“That’s very true,” Eleanor agreed. “And…reassuring. Today.”
A silence fell between them.
“They still condescend to her,” Gwen added, mercifully.
“They do, and they push her to do better at her job,” Eleanor said. “But the reason is always because she’s new and inexperienced. The fact that she’s the only woman is –– well, the tension is obviously there, but the plot never hinges on it.”
“It hinges on her being Lenape,” Dania pointed out. “It does that a lot.”
“That’s clearly the intent,” Gwen said. “Otherwise the other time period wouldn’t be there.”
“I’m super impressed by the performers,” Eleanor said. “It’s obviously a great script, but it can’t be easy to take all the language about the loan market and the tulip exchange rate and make it engaging onstage.”
“I hate that I like Dick Fuld so much,” Gwen said. “But Jeffrey King is quite the engaging performer. His physicality is just as interesting as any of the Native American actors, and he doesn’t have half as difficult blocking as they do.”
“I like the sister, too, the one running the language program,” Dania added. “She’s funny. And she’s got the best costumes, for sure.”
“All the costumes are great,” Eleanor said. “It’s hard to make pieces that fit in both time periods, but somehow it works out.”
“There are a few times the outfits are blatantly modern during the past scenes,” Gwen commented. “But the division between time periods is so liquid anyway it hardly matters.”
“I feel like it’s the kind of play I need to get the script for,” Eleanor said. “There’s so much in it to dig through. Are they selling it in the Tudor Guild shop?”
“We can check,” Gwen said. “I’d love to read over it, too.”
“Has the writer done other plays?” Dania asked.
“Let me check her bio,” Gwen said. “If she hasn’t, she should be writing more.”
“Even if she has,” Eleanor added. “She should be writing more.”
Image Credit: Jenny Graham. Pictured (l to r): Steven Flores and Tanis Parenteau.