First, a brief, contextualizing history lesson. Feel free to skip ahead, but I highly recommend you take a moment to read the Wikipedia entry on Michael Rockefeller, the son of the American billionaire. Even without knowing the history you’ll enjoy this production, but an appreciation of Rockefeller’s story will increase your appreciation of the show.
Cool, creepy, and kind of like one of those stories of Roanoake, or Amelia Earheart, right?
At the opening of THE MAN WHO ATE MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER (written by Jeff Cohen and based on the short story by Christopher Stokes), the audience has been entering as a lone man appears to sleep – though it’s hard to see the motion of his chest that would imply he was breathing. In an opening scene that plays with language and quickly sets up a device by which the audience understands when the characters on stage are speaking the Asmat language and when they speak English, Designing Man and his friend (with whom he shares an oath of brotherhood), Half Moon Terror (David King), greet Michael Rockefeller (Aaron Strand), who has come from the kingdom of New York to meet the man who carved the beautiful pieces that have captured his imagination.
One of the themes that spoke to me in Cohen’s play was the way that even though Rockefeller expressed negative feelings in regards to globalization (“Much more ominous is the economic and spiritual future of the Asmat. The Asmat like every other corner of the world is being sucked into a world economy and a world culture which insists on economic plenty in the western sense as a primary ideal.”), his desire to bring Designing Man’s work to a wider audience was the thing that brought enough wealth to the village to make a commodity of Designing Man’s talent. There are some gaps in the tale, but in my mind it was Half Moon who was responsible for the events that damn Rockefeller (that’s not a spoiler, the title gives it away), and as for Designing Man’s child…
The way Cohen juxtaposes and contrasts the vocabularies of his characters (actually, potentially Stokes – I’d need to read the short story to be sure) shows a deft understanding of the limitations of speaking in ones own native language. It reminds me of a novel I read as part of an English (as in, in England) class on Postmodern Literature which has designated itself as “THE CAY but from Timothy’s POV” in my mind. Actually, not positive the guy’s name was Timothy. The reason the book was part of the syllabus was because it introduced the idea of speaking in the language of one’s oppressors. There was something in the novel about one or the other of the two of them not having a tongue – physically being unable to make the sounds that would allow them to communicate, I think – or maybe that was just a topic of discussion one day? At any rate, the idea of speaking in the language of one’s oppressors is what stuck with me, and I think Cohen has artfully illustrated an attention to and respect for language in this play – one that the talented cast and director carry into the production.
(Incidentally, linguistics is a passing side interest – the kind of thing I’d like to read more about, or gain a better appreciation for it, because it seems like the structures and etymologies of words, and the connotations that attach themselves to words because of those structures/etymologies), often wind up playing a role in the narrative connections contained in my own writing…)
Definitely recommended; there are plenty of other things I could say about this show but hey, that’s what discussions in the comments are for.
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