The Austin Chronicle

The Tree Play

For this story of a rain forest over a lifetime, Robi Polgar created a living, breathing poem

Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, August 14, 2015, Arts

Some spend too little time considering our ecological footprint. Some spend too much. The Tree Play, nurtured from seedling to sapling and beyond by writer-director Robi Polgar, clears a path through the passion and the politics of deforestation and conservation, leaving us with a moving piece about the fragility of our symbiosis with nature.

To call it a "workshop" would be a dis­service. We were clearly seeing the beginning of something – the birth of an idea yet to grow and mature, though fully realized for its current purposes. Polgar had his cast literally breathe life into the play before leading us from the lobby into the performance space at Ground Floor Theatre, where we sat along the perimeter of a clearing in a suggested rain forest. Once inside, we were enveloped by carefully crafted design elements mixing with skilled and invested performances to create a tangible theatrical ecosystem. Ia Ensterä's sparse but brilliant representation of foliage and canopy gave us just enough to feel where we were, but not so much that we were drawn into the design rather than the performance. Lowell Bartholomee's sounds echoed the subtle chorus of forest noise, cradling us in our own auditory sense until a particular moment exploded us out of our bubble of safety. The lighting, by Jennifer Rogers, appropriately captured the sun's struggle to pierce the dense growth around us, making each ray of light a gift. Buffy Manners' costumes worked very well, particularly for those actors portraying trees – part human, part spirit, part nature, each with its own identity and soul.

The word "play" in the title was possibly a misnomer. Polgar created for us a living, breathing poem: a 45-minute escape of spoken word in motion, telling a compelling story of the rain forest over a lifetime. The "tree" of the title, played at the start by Susan Peter­son, Bird Caviel, and Blake Robbins (and later joined by most of the remaining cast), was constantly in motion, blown both gently and ferociously by the winds of Toni Bravo's stunning choreography. April Perez Moore effortlessly embodied the girl, whose protective relationship with the tree and the forest (along with other characters throughout her life) was the core of the story. Kevin Gates was nurturing and strong as the girl's father, while Jona­than Salazar and Huck Huckaby gave notable turns as a love interest and a journalist, respectively. The remainder of the cast – Nathan Porteshawver as a logger and John Grewell, Toni Baum, and Corinne Franks Oh as the tree chorus – were ever-present in our surroundings, moving and providing the white noise of the forest in an engaging fashion.

Billed as an "agit-prop folk tale," The Tree Play contained its share of fairy-tale whimsy and magic. Some may have found themselves hungry for more substance, a little more detail. I submit that if this piece were even one minute longer or contained one more well-made element, it would cease to be what it is. Polgar and his team gave us just the right amount of experimental and activist theatre, and if you didn't see it, you unfortunately missed out on what was the start of something wonderful.

The Tree Play

Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale
Aug. 7

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