nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
February 3, 2012
It's too easy to forget sometimes how wonderfully weird the experience of theatre can be. Human beings perform these rehearsed rituals before an audience, who are generally trained to key into psychological truths or emotional revelations, in the process overlooking the fundamental bizarreness of this play-acting for the sake of art.
A mundane observation, perhaps, but also a reminder to seek out these strange works that aim to evoke through the confrontational rather than lull through the recognizable. Jim Findlay's Botanica, which tells the story of two botanists and one custodian who fall into an esoteric madness while locked in a closed-environment terrarium to perform experiments in "plant consciousness," provides a solid framework for a multitude of admirable weirdness.
Findlay, who has spent his career collaborating in the experimental NYC scene, most notably with the Wooster Group and through his own crazy-as-hell company Collapsible Giraffe, is well versed in theatre meant to eschew narrative consistency for the sake of visceral engagement. And his show is largely successful in engendering moments and sequences of unquestionably evocative power. It starts with the design. Findlay and his accomplished downtown design team have created one of the most engrossing uses of the huge 3LD space that I've seen. The audience enters through a small, working greenhouse and then spends pre-show watching silhouettes behind an upstage screen, in front of which is a functional research station and a table of computers from which emerge a slew of wires that will help provide the show's near-incessant soundscape of rumbling drones, manipulated vocals, and amped projections of plants being manhandled (yes, the plants are mic'd!). Plants are everywhere, the myriad reflective surfaces project light in fascinating ways, and the various set objects (ranging from cots to an exercise bike) will all witness their own particular variations of perversion.
In itself, the set is evocative, but we haven't even gotten to the story. It's a simple, recognizable narrative—people cut off from the world fall deeper into their obsessions until those obsessions consume them—which takes an interesting direction through the contemplation of plant/human relationships. The three performers, who create much of the soundscape live in addition to performing, are remarkably committed to the task not of communicating the psychological truth of madness but instead of diving head-first into madness itself. In the process, there are moments that may shock, disgust, or enliven you, but which most certainly can't be called boring. The play is equally interested in intellectual, aesthetic, and sexual perversity (okay, so maybe a bit more interested in sexual…), and when it works, it's certainly capable of engaging an audience in these depths.
The problem is that it doesn't always work. As far as crafting evocative sequences—did I mention that a plant talks, shaking its little leaves as it does so?—Botanica is on the right track. But it does hang undoubtedly on a narrative framework, a crucial choice to warrant its 90 minute runtime. And yet there seems to be no attempt made at momentum, so that in between its most flamboyant or creepy moments the show falls into a repetitively static rhythm. That can work, and has worked (though usually does best at closer to an hour runtime), but there comes a point in Botanica where you might find yourself feeling like you've already experienced the play, and wondering why it continues to rumble along. There are so many narrative elements woven into it already that a willingness to engage those a bit more directly could have gone a great ways towards tying together these moments I found myself waiting for.
But when these moments come—and yes, I'm intentionally avoiding revealing too much—they certainly do demand attention. How much an audience can throw away their expectations of verisimilitude and consistency is always hard to gauge, and so it's equally hard to know how to recommend a show like this, but if you're into what's probably the most expertly sculpted piece of weirdness in town, then I assure you Botanica's got the goods.