A bit of banter between a couple of young indigenous protesters at Standing Rock drills down wryly and comically on one of the key issues in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s new time-hopping play Crossing Mnisose: the way that many white people either venerate or underestimate nonwhite people, falling back on shopworn assumptions rather than taking the time to listen and learn and simply respect.
Carey (Nathalie Standingcloud), a young woman from nearby Bismark, and Travis (Robert I. Mesa), a key student activist in the 2016 fight to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline that poses a threat to reservation land and burial sites, break into an impromptu comedy routine about the ways that white New Agers approach them as embodiments of mystical indigenous powers. The mimicry’s spot-on, and only a little exaggerated, which makes it all the funnier, in a shoulder-shrugging, with-friends-like-this sort of way. It’s almost a courtship dance, tough and affectionate and satiric and seductive all at once.
Time warps in Nagle’s plays, or rather, overlaps. The past is prologue to the present, an enduring chord within a freshly written song, the sins of the fathers visiting generations to come. Nagle’s play Manahatta, which premiered last season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opens next month in New York, bounces between the stories of a Lenape woman in the 1600s, when Dutch settlers began to take over Manhattan, and a modern-day Lenape woman who is a high-powered securities trader on Wall Street, which sits on land from which her ancestors were evicted.
Crossing Mnisose, which is receiving its world-premiere production through May 5 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, also leaps across centuries, retelling the story of Sacagawea and the Lewis & Clark Expedition overlapped by the story of the water protectors and their 2016 standoff against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota.
Nagle is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and has a vital interest in the way things came to be. She approaches the notion of inherited trauma with fierce purpose and some nuance. It’s not so much, I think, that the past predetermines the present in her plays as it is that the assumptions of the past, if not reexamined critically, can protect and continue the disparities of power that allow the past to repeat itself. At the heart of these plays is the sense that, if cycles are to broken, they must first be confronted and understood, their mythologies stripped away so that a more honest perception can emerge and lead, ideally, to different results. First, though, retell the story true.
Crossing Mnisose dives fearlessly into those waters, finding echoes between the expansion-obsessed early 19th century and the energy-obsessed 21st, whose drive to capitalize on oil and gas extraction no matter what the environmental or cultural cost reflects the market-driven fur trading on the frontier and the Jefferson administration’s eagerness to expand American domain to the Pacific Ocean: Lewis and Clark were essentially plotting routes for future settlers to follow on the road to empire. And as they had been on Manhattan Island, the indigenous residents were helpful in some matters but mostly just in the way of grand plans. So were the indigenous protesters at Standing Rock, and the environmentalists who allied with their cause, in the 21st century: what are rights and responsibilities when a fortune’s sitting there ripe for the plucking?
Nagle’s juggling of the two tales can be a little slippery and a little overly reliant on symbolic coincidence, and on the Sunday afternoon after last Friday evening’s opening it seemed still to be settling in, which isn’t uncommon with new plays. But on the whole it manages its epic ambitions and intimate storytelling engagingly and well. All six performers under Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith’s direction are double-cast, with some nifty backstage costume switches so they can exit the stage as one character and reemerge, sometimes almost immediately, as another.
Standingcloud, the young heroine Carey of the contemporary tale, is the child bride Sacagawea in the historical tale. Mesa, the youthful Standing Rock defender Travis, is also Coyote, a young native trader who falls for Sacagawea. Gavin Hoffman is Toussaint Charbonneau, the French Canadian fur trader and Sacagawea’s husband, and also Carl, the old Dakota lad who’s back working his connections for the construction company on the Dakota Access pipeline. Sera-Lys McArthur is Carey’s mother Rose and also Otter Woman, Charbonneau’s first wife and Sacagawea’s protector/companion. Nick Ferrucci is Meriwether Lewis and a comically furtive colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers, who wants to push the pipeline through but also wants to make sure everything’s done according to Hoyle. (The Army Corps is deep underground in this story, as it has been in the reshaping of the land and the people on it all over the West. Think about it every time you flip a light switch or drive out the Columbia Gorge: It built the dams along the Columbia River that bring the region electricity, and that also flooded Celilo Falls, which had been a vital native fishing ground, trade center, and gathering place for perhaps 15,000 years.) And Chris Murray is William Clark and also Patrick Morgan, a modern-day rancher caught between his need for pipeline money and his desire to see the burial grounds protected.
If Nagle’s Standing Rock story seems more creatively tethered to fact and her Sacagawea story a little free-floating in the imagination, it may be because so little is known about Sacagawea, and what we think of as known is often more myth than historically provable or, sometimes, even probable. We know that she was born into a Lemhi Soshone village in what is now Idaho, kidnapped by Hidatsi warriors at a young age and taken to a Hidatsi village in current North Dakota, then sold to Charbonneau (or perhaps he won her while gambling) at about age 13, to be his wife. We know she was a vital member of the Lewis & Clark expedition as a translator and peacemaker with other tribes, and that her husband and baby traveled with her. And we know that Lewis and Clark, in their copious journals, recorded scant information about her.
Hoffman plays convincingly roguish heavies of varying weight in both centuries, and I was surprised at how harshly Charbonneau is treated in Nagle’s script. Then I researched him a bit, and discovered that, while she may have invented some of the particulars, Nagle’s assessment of his character seems historically spot-on. Lewis and Clark found him exasperatingly unreliable. John MacDonnell, an early fur trader and explorer, wrote in his journal in 1795 that Charbonneau “was stabbed at the Manitou-a-banc end of the Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in the act of committing a Rape upon her Daughter by an old Saultier woman with a Canoe Awl—a fate he highly deserved for his brutality— It was with difficulty he could walk back over the portage.” Such matters rarely make it into middle-school history books. Nagle doesn’t use this story in Crossing Mnisose, either, and yet it sneaks in, furtively, in the contemporary tale.
When we meet Lewis and Clark in Crossing Mnisose (Mnisose is the Missouri River) they’re clownish – drinking excessively, recording minutiae in their journals, readily swayed by Charbonneau’s transparent manipulations, ill-equipped for the task at hand. This surprised me, too. Jefferson’s emissaries no doubt were many things – poorly prepared, perhaps; lacking knowledge of the people and languages they would be meeting; unaware geographically; locked inside the notion of their own superiority as they embarked on an adventure in a strange land among people whose cultures they neither understood nor cared to understand – but it’s unlikely that they were buffoons. They were, in a way, the best and the brightest, trailblazers of an empire, and it’s a telling part of the historical story that, although they succeeded in their mission as they understood it, they also failed in fundamental and far-reaching ways that have led down the years to things like, well, Standing Rock.
Todd Rosenthal’s wonderful, wide-to-the sky set, which has space for gliding canoes and encampments along the river and secret meeting places and a Dakota tavern, ties the two tales together and helps shape a story of intimate strangers, courage and betrayal, power and money, and a same-old-same-old that perhaps is beginning to crack. Crossing Mnisose is partly about following the money, partly about the insidious staying power of ignorance and cultural arrogance, and partly about bringing things hidden into the light.
Nagle’s play is nicely formed with room for growth, and although I love its epic set at The Armory I can also imagine it playing in a smaller, more intimate space that would draw the audience closer to the personal stories. As it is, the issues that Crossing Mnisose skillfully raises take the spotlight. The rebellion at Standing Rock made a difference, drawing indigenous people and environmental advocates to a lonely stretch of the American interior for many months to make a stand, and attracting attention around the world. The memory of it spins off into countless directions, among them The Condor and the Eagle: Moving Forward After Standing Rock, the superb exhibition that inaugurated the Elisabeth Jones Art Center last June in Portland.
And yet the rebellion was crushed. On Jan. 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States. Four days later, in one of his first official acts, he signed an executive order instructing the Army Corps to grant all easements necessary for the pipeline to cross the Missouri. Soon after, the bulldozers rolled, obliterating everything in their path. You could write a thousand stories about a thing like that. Crossing Mnisose is a good place to start.
Catching up on recent stories
Barry Johnson reports on the big new deal at Artists Rep – a $10 million drive to completely refurbish the half of its building that it’s keeping (it’s selling the other half to a developer for a 20-story project) and build two performance spaces in it.
And Christopher Gonzalez reviews the gritty and audacious Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at CoHo Theatre.
Pulling off a triple play
As Broadway World reports, Portland playwright Andrea Stolowitz took home her third Oregon Book Award for drama in six years from Monday night’s Literary Arts book-award celebration. This year’s top prize is for Successful Strategies, which transposes a Marivaux French farce to Oregon wine country, and which had its premiere last year at Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene. It follows 2015’s Ithaka and 2013’s Antarktikos.
A new (and first) season in Ashland
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival chose Tuesday (appropriately, it was Will Shakespeare’s 455th birthday) to announce its 2020 season, the first under incoming artistic director Nataki Garrett and one with a distinctly contemporary flavor, including two world premieres.
It’ll start in early March, run through the beginning of November, and include 11 productions: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Bring Down the House (a two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays); The Tempest; Bernhardt/Hamlet (Theresa Rybeck’s play about the Great Play and the Great Actress, Sarah Bernhardt, who took on the Great Role in 1899); the Peter Pan riff Peter and the Starcatcher; the world premiere of Karen Zacarias’s The Copper Children (part of the “American Revolutions” series); Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey; Sarah B. Mantell’s Everything That Never Happened; Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks (a sequel to the festival’s recent Vietgone); and the premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates (also part of the festival’s “American Revolutions” series of new plays; Garrett will direct).
Endnote: stage readings
You can go the theater. You can make theater. You can even read about theater. And we’ve read a few good stage tales lately:
I’m old-school enough to think that movies ought to be made out of plays, not the other way around. But Jesse Green goes bananas in his New York Times review for the new Broadway musical comedy Tootsie, adapted for the stage from the grand old Dustin Hoffman cross-dressing movie hit. Green loves the new musical partly because it’s … wait for it … old school. (Part-time Portlanders Corey and Jessica Rose Brunish are among the show’s producers.)
Speaking of Shakespeare (we were, weren’t we?) I’m a pretty firm Stratfordian when it comes to the endless debate about who actually wrote the plays. I’m pretty sure Bill Shakespeare, seasoned actor and man-about-the-theater, wrote them himself, probably with some collaboration on a few of them, because that’s how theater works.
I base my opinion mostly on contrarian class grounds, because the argument that some hick undereducated actor from the provinces couldn’t possibly have written the things, and therefore they must have been written by someone refined, classically tutored, and of the upper crust, strikes the proletarian me as, well, classist in the extreme. But my friend Kevin Murphy tipped me off to the essay The Ongoing Obsession with Shakespeare’s True Identity, by the biographer and book-trade historian Stuart Kells, and it’s a smart, amusing read. Any essay that includes the sentence “Finding out you’re surrounded by Shakespeare skeptics is like discovering all your friends are Scientologists, or swingers” is going to keep me reading.
Speaking of Shakespeare (we were, weren’t we?) Linfield College Shakespeare scholar and occasional ArtsWatch correspondent Daniel Pollack-Pelzner has a terrific piece in The New Yorker about Taylor Mac’s contemporary response to Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, Pollack-Pelzner writes, is “part slapstick, part verse drama; lyricism, elegy, and satire jostle with fart jokes and pies in the face.”
Also in The New Yorker, D.T. Max takes a long and fascinating dive into the world of Lucas Hnath, playwright of Broadway’s current Hillary and Clinton, the everybody’s-doing-it A Doll’s House, Part 2, and other stage marvels, among them a hypercharged 10-minute riff called The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith.