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New Play About Manhattan's History Comes to Iconic Farley Post Office

By Mathew Katz | May 17, 2013 7:44am
 The James A. Farley Post Office will be the home of a play exploring the history of Manhattan starting in June.
The James A. Farley Post Office will be the home of a play exploring the history of Manhattan starting in June.
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Shutterstock/Erika Cross

HELL'S KITCHEN — The massive James A. Farley Post Office may one day become the city's newest train station — but in June it will take a turn as a theater showcasing the history of New York City.

The offbeat actors at the Peculiar Works Project will bring a new play to the post office that tells the story of Manhattan's history — from the arrival of colonists to the present day — throughout the vast hallways of the century-old building using song, poetry, dance and scenes reenacting the borough's most memorable moments.

Part guided tour, part performance art, the play "Manna-hata" — titled after the indigenous Lenape tribe's name for the island — starts June 10, when groups off roughly 100 viewers will be led through the building in groups of 25, encountering scenes featuring Manhattan legends like Boss Tweed, Robert Moses and Dorothy Parker.

"We just knew this building would be the perfect opportunity to do this sort of thing," said Peculiar Works' Barry Rowell, who wrote the play and will co-direct it with fellow company founder Catherine Porter.

"There are hundreds of offices in there that are empty, so we're using two wings — one on the third floor, one on the fourth floor."

A large portion of the piece will be performed in a giant former mail-sorting room, Rowell said, while audiences will be able to look out the window to see scenes acted out on nearby Eighth Avenue.

The play is part of the New York State Economic Development Corporation's push to utilize the post office building before it's possibly transformed into Moynihan Station. The building is currently hosting "DSM-V," a psychology-themed art show.

Each group of viewers will be led through the performance by one of four tour guides, including actors playing activist Jane Jacobs, Representative Sharley Chisholm, Walt Whitman, and Easanques, a Native American character from modern times who Rowell created.

"We knew this would be a journey for people, so we wanted to use the distance and the guides as much as possible," he said.

A total of 21 actors will play more than 100 roles, and will also perform all the music heard throughout the experience.

"This is a lot. It's the last 400 years of New York City history," Rowell said. "The 10,000 years before that would be another project."

"Manna-hata" runs on Thursdays to Sundays at 7 p.m. from June 7 to June 23. Tickets are available online for $18.