The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller excellently subverts some well-known stereotypes, but fails to involve the audience on a deeper level. At the top of the show, the ensemble enters, moving slowly like animals on the hunt, wearing wooden masks, war paint and small bits of cloth, surrounding the sleeping Designing Man (played by Daniel Morgan Shelley). Suddenly, Half Moon Terror (David King) wakes Designing Man and together they jump and yell animatedly in a foreign tongue. I feel like I’ve seen this before. The scene freezes, and a spotlight shines on Designing Man. In the tone of a curious scholar, he states, “Half-Moon Terror and I were talking politics at the edge of the swamp when the billionaire’s son first appeared.” The juxtaposition of image and sound is funny and unexpected: I laugh, not just at the actors, but at myself, at my surprise that a ‘savage’ could be articulate, intelligent.
Unfortunately, Designing Man’s initial tone of academic curiosity is the main note in Jeff Cohen’s adaptation of Christopher Stokes’ brilliant short story. Michael Rockefeller is directed by Alfred Preisser and produced by Dog Run Repertory Company at the West End Theater. The play deals with the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, anthropologist and son of NY governor Nelson Rockefeller. M Rockefeller went missing in 1961 while studying the Asmat tribe in Papa New Guinea, and was never found.
Stokes’ smart and poignant story imagines the tale from the Asmats’ point of view, told by the tribe’s talented, sensitive artist, Designing Man. Cohen’s adaptation, though smart and funny, fails to capture the emotional depth of the piece that made Stokes’ story so powerful.
In the script, Cohen relies too heavily on the original text, giving large chunks of it to Designing Man, who pulls away from the action of the scene to deliver these monologues directly to the audience, as would a narrator. Much of what could be performed is instead described, and in Designing Man’s academic tone. We are again and again pulled away from the action, therefore unable to connect to the characters and deprived of moments of pathos.
An example of this is a scene between Designing Man and his wife, Breezy, (sweetly performed by the spry Shannon A.L. Dorsey). Designing Man has been wrestling with the word “love,” a word unknown (as word and concept) to the Asmats at this point in time. Breezy’s face sparks a revelation for Designing Man, and he says to her, vulnerably, earnestly, “Love. You are love to me.” Breezy stares, unresponsive, for a fraction of a beat. I lean forward, my heart about to break for Designing Man. But the scene freezes, and Designing Man pulls away, describing Breezy's response instead of letting us see it. I sit back, disappointed.
Various strengths of Michael Rockefeller are worth mentioning. I took particular note of the masks, designed by Kimberly Glennon. Worn by a chorus of Asmat spirits and made of a kind of light wood, they are hauntingly simple, portraying gaunt faces with deep empty sockets in place of eyes.
Unfortunately, the other design elements do not aid in turning these masked figures into ethereal beings. The set and lighting are insufficient; the designers do not manage to fully create a unified world. Granted, the specific quirks of the West End Theater, like its colorful, decorated walls, are difficult to hide; they are a constant reminder that we are in a theater, not Papua New Guinea.
In the end, the production’s main strength lies in subverting the audience’s expectations. Two scenes besides the opening are particularly striking in this regard. The first is a montage of sex scenes between Designing Man and his friend’s wife, Plentiful Bliss (the hilarious Tracy Jack), in which Plentiful Bliss attempts to engage Designing Man in serious debate amidst gruntings, thrustings and hair-pulls.
The most satisfying, though, occurs near the play’s end: at a pivotal moment, the ensemble breaks out in a highly energetic and entertaining ‘tribal’ song and dance, the likes of which we’ve yet to see in the play up to this point. At its close, the character Bringing Man (a solid performance by David Brown, Jr.) appears, speaking to us, the audience, as tourists who have just witnessed an ‘authentic’ ritual by ‘authentic’ Asmats. Suddenly we’re implicated as colonial travelers, made to question our enjoyment of the ritual we just witnessed.
Though these moments are entertaining, and momentarily give one pause, they fail to deliver lasting blows. In the end, the staged version of The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller does not live up to the richness of its source. Cohen and Pressier fail to fully translate the heart of the text into theatrical language; that is, spectacle, bodies onstage, the power of two people connecting, or failing to connect, in real time. One might as well stay home and read the story.