Monday, February 21, 2011

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller

Photo: Lia Chang

In 1961, the anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, of the business-political-philanthropic Rockefellers, visited the Asmat people deep in the jungles of New Guinea. He fell in love with their art and made a second visit for further study, during which he disappeared. There are two versions of how he died (if indeed he did die): (1) A crocodile ate him after his canoe overturned (a theory supported by another anthropologist who saw the canoe overturn but didn't see what happened to Rockefeller) or (2) The head-hunting, cannibalistic Asmat killed and ate him in revenge for an earlier murder of some of their people by white men (this theory is based on extremely circumstantial evidence).

Jeff Cohen's smart, funny, and moving play The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller (based on a short story of the same name by Christopher Stokes) tells the story of Rockefeller's visit from the point of view of the Asmat, who are initially amused by Rockefeller's enthusiasm and his mangling of their language (he cheerfully announces at one point, "I am a monkey fucker"). However, as he focuses his attention on the carvings of Designing Man, he throws off the balance of the tribe, and his visit sets off a chain of events that epitomizes the concept of unintended consequences.

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller is, on one hand, a romp of a show, including an hysterical sex-as-manipulation scene, and on the other a serious examination of how humans (both strangers and friends) interact, how our assumptions color our view of the world, and how the road to hell can indeed be paved with good intentions.

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller is beautifully directed by Alfred Preisser, and superbly acted by, in particular, Daniel Morgan Shelley as Designing Man; David King as his friend Half-Moon, who feels threatened by the attention Designing Man is receiving, and Tracy Jack as Half-Moon's sexually enthusiastic wife.

(Reviewer comp; third row on the aisle.)

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