The Man Who Planted Trees
nytheatre.com review by Rohana Elias-Reyes
October 3, 2009
On the surface, Puppet State Theatre Company's The Man Who Planted Trees at the New Victory, is a simple adaptation of Jean Giono's short story of the same name. The narrator, here renamed Jean after the author, speaks directly to the audience. He tells of his meetings with Elzeard Bouffier beginning in 1910 through Elzeard's death in 1947, and how during that span of nearly 40 years, Elzeard transformed a desolate corner of Provence into a verdant beautiful countryside by planting thousands upon thousands of trees.
Despite its simplicity, the company faced a few hurdles in making the story theatrical and kid-friendly. Elzeard doesn't really speak and he basically does nothing but plant trees for four decades. Though one could argue the stakes are incredibly high, the pace is quite slow for a generation that has grown up on seven-minute action segments intercut with even louder and faster commercial breaks.
To address this, Puppet State uses (no surprise here) puppetry, and breaks Giorno's story into short segments interspersed with classic comic duo banter between Jean and a dog puppet inspired by a brief mention of Elzeard's dog in Giono's story. Richard Medrington plays Jean as the suffering straight man to Rick Conte's hysterical dog puppet. Periodically he gets aggravated with Dog and throws a stick to get him off stage so he can resume Elzeard's story. As a way to engage both children and adults it works wonderfully: great jokes, great timing, and good old-fashioned shtick. However, I would have liked the interstitial routines to touch more on the story's themes. Because Dog is so funny, I was worried that the kids in the audience might giggle their way through and miss the heavier elements of The Man Who Planted Trees altogether.
Which brings us to the second big issue: Elzeard's determined efforts to revive the land take place during a time that spans one of mankind's most destructive and violent phases. Jean begins his story hiking through a blasted landscape in which the few destitute desperate inhabitants frequently go insane and commit murders and suicide. Five years later, Jean visits Elzeard after taking part in some of the Great War's most storied battles, and through Jean we learn France fell quickly to the Nazis in World War II. We also meet a French politician, a puppet voiced by Medrington and manipulated in a comic Nazi dance number by Medrington and Conte, who claims he will protect the forest and then cuts it down. If you are keeping score, I am now sitting in the audience with my six-year-old vacillating between worrying how I'm going to explain murder, suicide, genocide, war, lying politicians, and the Vichy government of France and worrying that my daughter hasn't even noticed their mention because she and I are too busy laughing. Parenting, it's not easy.
It turns out Puppet State had more faith in my daughter than I did. Though she, like literally every other child in the audience, walked out saying "that was a funny dog," she actually had a lot of questions about the story. I did not really get how carefully she had been taking it all in until we got home and in describing the show to my husband she both demonstrated the way the dog fell over when it got surprised during the stick-throwing game, and corrected me when I told him that the play mentioned more than a million people dying during World War I. "No mommy, more than a million men."
I recommend you heed the age recommendation of seven on up, and take your kids to see The Man Who Planted Trees, but prepare yourself for some challenging post-show discussion. It is a lovely theatrical experience on many levels. It's funny, introduces conversation about some pretty serious topics, and brings the message that against all odds, our ability to take positive action can triumph over our destructive nature—that is a great lesson for both children and adults. And did I mention the dog puppet is hysterical?