Last Saturday, Christina and I watched a reading of “Manahatta” by Mary Kathryn Nagle at the Public as part of their New Work Now! 2013 series. It’s a delightfully arch production, structured as a series of scenes between two time periods (17th-century Manahatta and late-2000s Wall Street, with dramatic overlaps) like Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” worth watching if you’re a New Yorker, care about Native American issues, or the peculiar interplay of indigenous people and ambitious conquerors and its long-term consequences. Its structure lends itself to juxtapositions, and even if they sometimes overreach in this play, they’re intriguing enough to merit proper staging. A scene depicting the infamous $24 real-estate deal successfully elicited a knowing, sympathetic cringe. History repeats throbs just under the surface like a subwoofer through drywall.
From all the clever chronological cross-referencing, among the more incisive and memorable fulcra was Nagle’s use of the word speak. In “Manahatta,” it means more than merely uttering words: it means a presence in the consequential moments of one’s own history. To lose the ability to speak, to have it beaten out of you, or to arrive at a consequential moment with neither the necessary language nor immediate skill to translate is pretty much terminal for one’s culture and way of life.
In both time periods, characters tell the Lenape story of the origins of life on earth: a turtle rose from the water, a tree grew from its back and sprouted a man, the tree bent over to touch the ground again and sprouted a woman. I like this story because it’s the foundation of one of my favorite cosmological epigrams.
And “Manahatta” is a rich story well-told, but a staging with sets and costumes will undoubtedly change the effect of the words (to say nothing of the stresses of syllables from show-to-show). Unlike so much of what I consume, this is explicitly a work in progress, something put forth as something that will potentially be quite different in the future (and I feel invested enough to return).
Related: I watched “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” in its premiere run at Woolly Mamoth last year and would recommend it to interested friends in New York who’ve ever compulsively quoted the Simpsons. I am interested to find out how too this has changed since it made its way up the 95.
Since last time: I wrapped a project in Pennsylvania with a design presentation and delivery of a pair of PDFs for functional specifications. Took a day off to take delivery of a new dresser, a vintage stainless-steel number not unrelated to tanker desks and barrister bookcases I have loved.
This weekend in theater, literature, and music: “Matilda” tonight, back to the Public on Saturday for “All The Faces of the Moon”, and the Brooklyn Book Festival and Chvrches in concert on Sunday.
Next week: a new project in Michigan opens with two days of interviews bookended by late-night flights with layovers. And before that, drinking about wireframes at the Brooklyn UX happy hour in Gowanus.
Finally: these are some awesome pictures of goats.