‘The Trees,’ Agnes Borinsky’s Fantasy of Stasis, a Review
The abstract white, platformed set design (Parker Lutz) appears stark and majestic with arched rectangular pillars proscribing a curvilinear playing area center and downstage. The set is a symbolic representation of a park, interestingly absent any greenery. It’s a fine space to present a metaphoric fantasy like Agnes Borinsky’s The Trees, directed by Tina Satter, currently at Playwrights Horizons.
The Trees opens with the possibilities of a unique, mysterious conflict, and ends in medias res, as Borinsky mines the central conceit adding various layers and meandering back and forth with no seeming resolution, though there is one that is abstract and philosophical. As the playwright suggests she is wont to do, The Trees avoids a developed plot. It concerns the logistics of arranging the movement of players and supplies around the static protagonists whose human condition changes at the top of the play.
Brother David (Jess Barbagallo) and sister Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) who is visiting from Seattle, return home from a party playfully drunk. Appreciative of the night’s beauty and environs, they decide to stay outside and spend some enjoyable time in the park adjacent to their family home, which they’ve inherited from their father, who recently died. Overnight, a cataclysm occurs without rhyme or reason that neither we nor the characters are a party to. It involves a mega change that defies description.
Absurdly, David and Sheila awake the next morning in horrified shock to find themselves rooted to the soil, their feet immobilized and frozen in place. Theirs is an unexplained miraculous transmogrification from flesh to plant matter, though they retain cellular structures of both humans and trees. They refer to their tree selves as humans and identify as humans, however, physically in defiance of reality, they are also trees.
In this hyper-state of existence, the siblings learn to overcome the conflict of former identities abutting their new beings. Gradually, their consciousness expands. They accept their new lives, but cannot move nor take care of their past identities, activities and relationships. For Sheila this means having to give up her life and work in Seattle. For David this entails perhaps never having sex again. Sheila reveals a nature that is flexible, accepts, goes with the flow, makes the best and follows all the cliches people use in life when there is nothing they can do to change things. However, David resists and is not happy with “what is.” In fact after David’s transformation, his old lover Jared (Sean Donovan) throws him over for someone else, though they still remain friends and Jared joins the community which sprouts up to nurture and care for Sheila and David. David learns to accept, but he always complains and resists before he settles into the status quo.
The playwright asks us to suspend our disbelief by suggesting anything is possible in her her fairy tale. In the twinkling of a few hours worlds can come and go, consciousnesses can be raised and a new perspective and ethos might be a pleasant, happy experience that exists in and of itself for the purpose of whimsy, if we are open-minded. Indeed and perhaps.
This appears to be one of Borinsky’s themes in The Trees. The circumstances are because they are and exist despite all defiance to science and logic. For that reason alone, The Trees is worthy of presentation. Understanding it as an allegory of human experience and the human condition, one is able to translate the metaphors and reactions of the protagonists to the unusual, whether in the play’s instance they have turned into a tree or in another instance, someone has been turned into deteriorating flesh through disease, drugs and their side effects.
Acutely directed by Tina Satter, who shepherds the actors, all do a yeoman’s job with the fantastic elements and fluid happenings that take place representationally over a seven year period. This is especially so of Crystal Dickinson and Jess Barbagallo, who make sense of the absurd, as we watch how Sheila and David confront their new genetic transformation.
Fortunately, when word gets around, friends help the tree/humans with food and other necessities. No logical sensibility is relayed as to why they need human food, why they need clothing, etc. They are immobilized in the trans-state of human/tree and achieve a status quo state of being in the park, where events transpire around them, where people enter and join them in community, while they are stuck and going nowhere. All seamlessly coheres as the thrust of Borinsky’s conceit. With these friends, neighbors and strangers, David and Sheila might live forever. Certainly, trees can live longer than human beings, if their environment is not undone by commercialization, fire and development. These possible undoings do threaten David and Sheila’s community as we see later in the play.
The fairy-tale elements of The Trees are heavily fantastical and provide some of the humor and most of the conundrum of illogical occurrences as David and Sheila grow a network of friends, who appreciate how they have embraced a back to nature, celebration of the earth lifestyle as tree/humans.
Those who visit feel an affinity to the siblings and become friends. These include Julian (Nile Harris) who makes a documentary on the siblings and Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli) who saves David and Sheila’s grandmother from a fire. As their Grandmother, Danusia Trevino speaks the entire role in Polish and references the mystical elements of David and Sheila’s “back to nature” movement as an inherent part of their ancestry. Others include Norm (Ray Anthony Thomas) a gay man cruising in the park, and importantly, Saul (Max Gordon Moore) a rabbi who believes in the miracle of their transformation by God and eventually marries Sheila and has Ezra (Xander Fenyes) with her. Lastly are friend Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto) and Sheryl (Marcia Debonis) a member of the Rabbi’s former congregation, whose heartfelt description of her Dad quickens Sheila in remembrance of her father.
The interesting villain who actually joins the community of friends begins as Vendor (Sam Breslin Wright). He hawks chips, pretzels and water to park visitors. As Wright’s Vendor ingratiates himself to the community eventually, he presents plans which would protect their human/tree status. Ironically, as quickly as they morphed into trees, he becomes the developer whose thrust is to build a mall in the park that will house David and Sheila. When the community that initially accepted the Vendor’s plans come to the final decision about the mall, there is another magnificent change. Sheila, David and their community decide that they don’t want a mall in the park. They want the park to remain undeveloped.
In a superb rant decrying how their decision is disloyal and has caused him time and money (he has been giving them checks for their support) Wright’s Vendor expertly magnifies all the hope and despair of progress and the destruction of land and environment for a questionable result.
The community and specifically David and Sheila have lost his friendship which Sheila is sanguine about, a reflection of her nature. She has been flexible about all that life and the situation has thrown at them. When David questions what will happen, Borinsky’s main theme comes to the fore. Love and community have been sustained by their transformation into trees, as they have provided an ecosystem that gives and receives, is nurtured and has nurtured. David counters that a mall will destroy what they’ve built with love. However, Sheila reminds him that nothing is certain. Truly, when they unwittingly began their fantastical adventure, goodness and love abounded from it because they accepted it instead of calling up woodcutters to chop off their legs.
Though at times the play appears illogical, the characterizations as uneven as some of them are give the play a quirky and exotic rhythm. In appearing to go “nowhere” the playwright takes her characters to an open ended conclusion which emphasizes love, community and the inability to know much of anything in the vast future which can turn on a dime overnight. Sometimes, even when malls are being scheduled to be built, they never materialize. And that’s a good thing, especially if the love of the surrounding community has petitioned their demise.
Kudos to the creative team which includes Parker Lutz (scenic design) Enver Chakartash (costume design) Thomas Dunn (lighting design) Tei Blow (sound design) Amanda Villalobos (puppet designer) and Nazareth Hassan (original music). The Trees runs until March 19th. For tickets go to their website https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/tickets-packages/buy-show-tickets/