Daniel Morgan Shelly and Aaron Strand. Photo by Lia Chang.
BOTTOM LINE: A cross cultural fictional tale, based on a real life Rockefeller, with an anomalous point of view. Absolutely worth the time!
True story: In 1961, 23 year-old Michael Rockefeller, son of future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, was on an expedition in New Guinea studying the Asmat tribe when the pontoon boat he was in capsized off the coast. Instead of waiting for help, Rockefeller attempted to swim to shore, and neither he, nor his body, were ever seen again. There has been much speculation regarding what could have happened to Rockefeller; many believe drowned on the swim to shore, others believe he was eaten be an alligator, a known danger in the region. Perhaps most interestingly is the idea that he was eaten not by an alligator, but by another human. Based on Christopher Stokes short story of the same name, this is the premise that Jeff Cohen's play The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller explores.
Loosely based on the facts surrounding Rockefeller's disappearance, the show weaves together a scenario in which he could have feasibly ended up a victim of murder and possibly cannibalism (although cannibalism is really a mere footnote in the show). Arriving fresh-faced and eager to learn about culture, Rockefeller (played by Aaron Strand), immerses happily into the Asmat culture and forges a cross cultural friendship with the Asmat artist known as Designing Man (played by Daniel Morgan Shelly). Despite their limited interaction with one another the bond between Designing Man and Rockefeller is the heart of the show, and when social and cultural conventions press Designing Man to consider killing Rockefeller, the emotional conflict he has feels deeply sincere.
One of the most impressive elements of The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller is the manner in which Cohen and director Alfred Preisser work together to effectively and empathetically tell the story through the view of the Asmat people instead of through the American visitor. Although the Asmat characters in the play engage in several activities that are taboo in our culture (such as cannibalism and wife trading) several conventions are used in order to usher the audience into a world in which it is easy to drop ethnocentric preconceptions and embrace the narrative. For example, there are two languages used in the storytelling, English, and a language that I assumed is native to the Asmat, but in the play, the languages are swapped, when Rockefeller speaks "English" it actually comes out as a gibberish that neither the Asmat nor the audience can understand, and when the Asmats speak it is in English; a brilliant choice that instantly aligns the connection of the audience to the Asmat culture. Additionally, Shelly doubles as an effective narrator, explaining certain plot points, but never apologizing for the cultural difference or talking down to the audience.
The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller offers superlative theatrical harmony. Not only is it entertaining and amusing, but its provocative and sentimental. It's impossible to look at the bonds and conflict formed over complete cultural opposites and not apply it to our modern world. Although it may particularly appeal to those interested in anthropology or Rockefeller's history, The Man Who are Michael Rockefeller is a worthy piece of theater for anyone looking to lose himself in an incredibly human, somewhat funny, ultimately tragic tale.
(The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller plays at The Arclight Theater, 152 West 71st Street between Broadway and Columbus, through March 13, 2011. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM at 7:30PM. Tickets are $50-$55 and are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444.)