Hidden away on the edge of Hyde Park, the half-acre Sparky Park seems an unlikely space to encounter actors engaged in performance. But that's exactly what you'll find there through Oct. 20 as the Exchange Artists weave the tale of The Man Who Planted Trees.
As the story unfolds, you realize the many ways in which the park (a former electric substation) is a truly ideal venue for Jean Giono's timeless fable, adapted here by Katherine Craft. At one corner of the park stands a stunning art installation by local designer Berthold Haas that vividly celebrates the tree, as does the performance happening in close proximity. The empty building in the center of the park is reminiscent of the abandoned dwellings of Elzeard Bouffier's isolated valley, an area forgotten by society and deserted except for Bouffier, a widowed shepherd and the title character. Trees dot the park's interior, with interesting detail created in stonework borders throughout. Taken together, these elements provide an especially intimate lens through which to experience all that Craft's adaptation has to offer. It's as though the park has been created by a set designer specifically for this production.
Indeed, the site at which this site-specific work is mounted was the highlight of my experience (perhaps unsurprising, as the Exchange Artists have proven quite resourceful in their use of alternative venues in the past). The cast is excellent, with honest and palpable performances delivered by all five actors. An exquisite original score by Rohan Joseph sweeps the story along, and the sound design is quite outstanding for the physical parameters at play. The performance occurs both throughout the park and within the building at its center, and, once inside, the audience is treated to intriguing projected designs by Katie Rose Pipkin (another highlight in my book). Director Rachel Wiese has assembled a talented team concerned with detail and execution, and her diligence and artistic sensibility are evident throughout.
There are a few caveats worth mentioning: Some walking is required – easy walking for most, to be sure, but enough to pose a consideration for those who are less ambulatory; there are no restrooms on site; and though the recorded narration accompanying the score is in English, nearly all of the dialogue is spoken in French, a choice that I appreciated for its artistic merit but which did make several aspects of the story somewhat difficult to follow, as je ne parle pas français (at least not with any degree of fluency).
The play's crucial message reminds us that "we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." The Man Who Planted Trees is a brief but poignant experience that touches the soul – and plants seeds for action.
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