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A CurtainUp Review
The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller

By Lina Zeldovich

Rockefeller? That's a strange name. What does it mean? — Breezy
I don't think it's supposed to mean anything. — Designing Man
Then why is it his name? — Breezy
the Man who Ate Michael Rockefeller
(l-r): Daniel Morgan Shelley and David King Sign in to like this photo.
(Photo: Lia Chang)
West meets New Guinea in Jeff Cohen's The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller which makes its comeback at the Arclight Theatre theater after a successful world premiere at the Dog-Run Rep. Told from the perspective of the native Asmat tribe, a culture that developed in isolation for thousands of years until discovered in the mid-20th century, the 65-minute play takes an unexpectedly humorous view of Rockefeller's still-unsolved disappearance in 1961.

Michael (Aaron Strand), a 23-year-old Harvard-educated anthropologist is writing a thesis about the Asmats' artistic inspiration, becomes enamored with the artwork of Designing Man (Daniel Morgan Shelly), the local carving artist. He wants to buy as much of his art as possible to start an archaeological museum. Half Moon Terror (David King), Designing Man's best friend and rival, who mistrusts white men, turns out to be a problem

Michael spends a week in the Asmat's settlement partaking in culinary feasts during which the gap between the two cultures becomes apparent. Michael wanders around snapping pictures while his hosts sport skulls and bones, and pierce their noses with crescents carved from pigs' pelvises to promote fertility. As a brotherly gesture, Half Moon Terror suggests that he and Designing Man exchange their wives.

In the play based on Christopher Stokes' short story of the same name, Jeff Cohen manages to uncover humor and certain similarities between the two worlds, especially the universality of the male-female dynamics. The sexy Plentiful Bliss (Tracy Jack), who nearly steals the show with her portrayal of a familiar chatterbox bimbo type. She is the Designing Man's new consort though pregnant with Half Moon's child and she wants her new husband to "shape" her baby with his "shaping tool" She jabbers about the tribe's gossip even when engaged in her marital duties. Her mate responds to this {"Do you want to talk about it now?") with the just right mix of charm and perplexity. This and other sex scenes in this play are as acrobatic as they are hilarious.

Yet, with all the humor the culture conflict is unavoidable. Wearing massive quantities of body paint and minimal amount of clothes (compliment to the creativity of costume designer Kimberly Glennon), the Asmat natives believe that their lives are governed by the spirits of their dead. Nothing portrays it better than the carver's pretty yet barren wife Breezy (Ayesha Ngaujah), who hopes her ancestors would bless her with a child. "Your father says you should be nicer to me," she tells Designing Man, while she holds out his father's embellished skull as proof. Her logic appears impregnable to her husband, and so he agrees.

Two days after Michael departs (to return three months later for the artwork) the clan's governor dies, which, in the villagers' opinion upsets the spiritual balance between them and the "Rockefeller tribe of New York." Cajoled by Half Moon Terror, the Asmats decide it is Michael's fault.

Full of cultural insights, the play is a frolicking romp through the New Guinea jungle. The simple yet colorful stage sets by Heather Wolensky drop us into the tropical paradise the moment Michael steps off his boat. Asmat's artifacts by Ross Chirico add authenticity to the scene.

While treading on a complex ethical ground, the production nonetheless manages to remain light, entertaining and funny, to the point that we're almost willing to side with the tribe when it comes to placating their enraged ancestors' spirits. Under the skillful direction of Alfred Preisser, the talented cast delivers a show as enjoyable as it is educational. Whether Michael Rockefeller was eaten by cannibals or drowned when his canoe capsized in a storm, is not that important.

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller
Written by Jeff Cohen, based on short story by Christopher Stokes'
Directed by Alfred Preisser
Cast: Daniel Morgan Shelley (Designing Man), Aaron Strand (Michael Rockefeller), David King (Half Moon Terror), Tracy Jack (Plentiful Bliss), Ayesha Ngaujah (Breezy), David Brown (Bringing Man), Shayshahn MacPherson (Governor)
Sets: Heather Wolensky
Costumes: Kimberly Glennon
Sound: Katie Hong
Lighting: Jay Scott
Stage Manager: Katie Hong
Running Time: 65 minutes
Arclight Theatre 152 W 71st St, New York, NY 10023. 212-787-8716
From 2/02/11; opening 2/09/11. -- closing 3/13/11
Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 and 7:30 p.m..
Reviewed by Lina Zeldovich based on Feb 5th press performance
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