To Dream of Trees
nytheatre.com review by Collin McConnell
August 25, 2013
A scene from To Dream of Trees
A cautionary folk fairy tale... It's like The Point meets The Labyrinth in a highly physical production of The Lorax. Without ever being too heavy-handed, this work grapples with the not-so-unrealistic apocalyptic vision of a world destroyed by selfishness. The sky is getting lower, the world is a mountain of garbage praised by all, and its inhabitants are mutated, cannibalistic garbage-insect-humans. And a young girl is having strange dreams...
The young girl - one of the 'chosen ones' - starts dreaming of 'creatures' (incredibly tall, with knots in their faces and too many arms to count). With an unwavering faith in their actual existence, and an insistent need to find them, she teams up with Ghede, a timid insect-human (who believes in her because maybe he is wishing for a better world than the one he's been handed) to find these 'creatures' of her dreams. But it won't be so simple: they'll need to traverse the perilous Mountain, which includes encounters with drugs, sex, and violent subhuman-insects (or, according to the playbill, "soldiers") - all while she attempts to understand the truth hiding in her dreams.
An important note on the "cautionary tale" side of things: while it is very clear the play is addressing pollution and global warming, it manages to avoid ever becoming overbearing or political - the play remains a story about people dealing with what it means to live in this world, and not about screaming, "See?! Look how horrible this would be, so go pick up some trash on your way home and plant twenty trees!" (Admission: I did, in fact, think about buying plants on my way home.)
The world of the play is a physical one - words become secondary to rhythms, to sounds, to movements. The play pulses - it bangs and murmurs, but is always pulsing. This may be due to Lily Raabe's (initially) firm grasp on the play as director, or perhaps embedded in Lavinia Roberts' (initially) driving text, but most likely it is thanks to the whole ensemble working to breathe life into this world. And not only is it a physical world, it is a violent world. For such a whimsical fairy tale, this piece is not afraid of darkness, which, at times, is frighteningly beautiful. The abuse endured by those who hope to dream, who manage to have sentimentality in such a disparaging world, are violated - are raped - on several occasions (the final image of the opening scene turns from perhaps slightly silly to quite terrifying as it becomes clear that the 'different' one will be quieted, that there will be no escape). To question - to look, to listen, to find that stillness - is challenging to those you're questioning, and so they will use whatever power they have or can take to subdue it.
This is a physical world, which is where the play succeeds wildly in its first half, and unfortunately falters in the latter half. There is an emphasis on listening - which we come to learn is not hearing words someone (or something) is saying, but rather seeing and understanding one's intentions. As the play progresses, it first falls victim to its own structure - travel, dream, travel, dream - which is so roughly steady a pace that its motions are like the gentle lapping of waves or rocking of a train car... The play perhaps knows this about itself, and thus falls into the second trap, where it attempts to explain away all the magic, all the mystery. Oddly enough, at the outset the pace is slow with little dialogue but so much happening and filled with so many questions, but the further you travel into the play, the more words replace actions and questions are no longer all that worth asking. And suddenly the point of the play - that listening - doesn't seem as important, because the play will simply tell me.
The characters cause an interesting problem as well. This world is fascinating, and it is because of the characters. However, the heroes are the least rich of the people we meet in this world; while Ghede (played by Mike J. McNulty with a lovely, if not at times affected, innocence) and the girl (who Aurora Leonard imbues with simple and effective sense of awe and wonder) are very engaging characters, compared to the great many others we only see briefly, they have very little to offer in terms of the rich possibilities in this world (the girl has her dreams, and Ghede has his chain - which certainly at one point allows him to shine in a moment of true understanding of self, worth, and values, and which McNulty plays with touching sincerity). The most interesting character in the piece - played by Nick Imperato (who is fantastic and wonderfully imaginative throughout) - is one greatly reminiscent of the Junk Lady from The Labyrinth, and who we only see for a brief moment, never serving any real purpose.
In the world of theater, however, especially of this variety, I do not believe problems are necessarily bad. They are simply challenges. The premise and commitment in this play to its world (rather than a disney-fied tale of why it's bad to litter) are beautiful, and I hope very much that this play will continue to be developed, to live, to find its own voice. This is exciting storytelling, and the whole artistic ensemble (actors, designers, directors alike) do a magnificent job crafting a vast world in a tiny basement theater. The whole thing comes together not because of one standout actor, or some sly directing, or a clever script. This is an ensemble piece through to its core, and I appreciate seeing such collaborative storytelling.
Ahmed Alabaca, the composer, deserves kudos for his lovely music guiding us through the entirety of the play. Perhaps it is becoming more an old trick now, but silence is used to great effect here; Alabaca's soothing melody gently courses like an unassuming brook through the story so effortlessly that danger - true danger - is not in the percussion of the oft-occurring rapids, but in the silence of still water, for that is where the danger of uncertainty, of not knowing, lies.
Designers Gina Grandi, Joy Passey, Lavinia Roberts, and Lily Raabe - as Puppet, Costume, Mask, and Set designer, respectively - do such simple, detailed work that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. The Romance of it all is what is most striking however, the beauty in the grotesque. The mountain of garbage is appalling, yet with so many recognizable pieces of trash, when you first walk into the theater it is difficult to not also laugh, thus making it (at least on some level) appealing. Grandi's birds, however, are the most successful in this regard. The design itself is simple and beautiful: strips of trash strung together, fluttering through the air. But in recognizing them as trash, the elegant beauty of them is inescapable, and I found myself stuck - can this play be asking me to find beauty in all of this filth?
I think it is. And I think that is a beautifully hopeful question to ask.