Empire of the Trees Review

 The Empire of the Trees      By: J.J. El-Far

It is not everyday in New York that we can so easily travel, without visa or ticket, to the porch of a villa in the Indian countryside. Bathed in rich jewel tones and draped with the delicate leaves of the Banyan and Asoka trees, the stage at the June Havoc Theatre drew the audience into an exotic and mythical place where time vanished. One can almost feel the stickiness of the atmosphere and smell the fragrance of simmering curry and juicy mangos. Actress Dana Mazzenga listlessly wanders the space, fingering books and straightening pillows with a pace determined by the humid air and tourist’s shallow curiosity. We immediately understand that Deborah Rubin is a woman without purpose or task. Boredom hangs in the air like thick gauze.

 It is no surprise that when the handsome young book vendor, played by Kunal Prasad comes to the gate that Deborah is quick to recognize an opportunity for companionship. As she prattles on with a Virginia twang in her voice, her Southern mannerisms strike a sharp contrast with the reserved Indian servant and the young Indian bookseller. In relation to them she appears naïve and frivolous, especially to our New York ears, and we feel the discomfort of watching someone unaware of how out of place they are. Rajesh Bose plays a host of characters beginning with Gandar, the main steward of the residence who reveals a compelling difference between Southern and Indian hospitality.

 Her husband Carl, played by Graham Outerbridge, encourages her to tame her ideas about India. He reminds her that despite the fact that 1963 is a time of post-colonial rebirth, and that the impact of President Kennedy’s presidency offered hope to a new generation of Indians, (calling to mind our current president) there were still severe class structures still in place. However, she is more savvy than she lets on, and later confesses her frustration over being “everyday hit in the face with a whole level of their experience that is invisible to me.” Deborah relies on her imagination and her passion of literature to fill the time. Her loneliness is temporarily quelled by more frequent visits from Joseph, the book seller, who brings her an English translation of the Ramayana. Hypnotized by the allure of the Banyan tree, she begins to blend her own Ramayana fantasy with her reality. The rift grows between her romanticized view of India, and the reality of the love triangle created between her new love interest, and her husband.

 Playwright, Adam Kraar brilliantly weaves in echoes of Ibsen’s masterworks in his characters of Carl and Deborah. Carl refers to his wife as his “little mongoose,” calling to mind Torvald’s smothering affection in A Doll’s House. Like Hedda Gabler, boredom seems to be the root of Deborah’s problems, and their discord makes the 800 lb gorilla in the room all the more apparent. The two hint at the topic of their failed pregnancy and the empty whole that would be filled by a baby. It seems Kraar is still asking the same question Ibsen proposed about the role of women. What else is she to do but have a baby? The Spirit of the Banyan Tree aptly assesses the situation, “he wants to plant a seed, and she wants to stroke the sky.” Carl’s frustration with his wife’s reluctance finds unsettling expression when he rips her books apart and then forces himself on her.

Director, Sherri Eden Barber clearly distinguishes this act from the sweet and bumbling intimacy shared by Deborah and Joseph. When the two lovers finally consummate their relationship, the Asoka tree, played by Taisha Cameron, enters and performs a sensual dance. However, it is unclear why this is the first time we are seeing the spirit of the Asoka tree represented, and it feels unbalanced with the character of the Spirit of the Banyan Tree. Perhaps Kraar could have incorporated both Spirits more smoothly into the rising tension of the first half of the play, and used them both to personify the pressure on these characters to take drastic actions. It would have made for a more suspenseful final reckoning of the love triangle.

 Clear and focused storytelling were brilliantly enhanced by a stunning lighting design by S. Benjamin Farrar. Rich green, saffron yellow, red, and purple washes transported the audience into the world of the play, and matched the emotional temperature of each scene. The sequence in the forest took on a particularly ethereal and dreamlike quality with luminous jade lights creating a pattern of light sifted through dense leaves on the stage. Thanks to this strong design, we believe Deborah when she tells us, “I’ve been to Ancient India, but now I’m back.”

 All of the actors had clearly put considerable hard work into creating their characters. The payoff came in watching a fully realized production where one could relax, and enjoy the storytelling. Rajesh Bose was particularly impressive, creating 5 distinct and compelling characters, and providing a narrative thread that connected the entire piece. However, like Ibsen’s plays, the female protagonist drives the action. Deborah’s arc is the one we follow. She is the motor of the play. Towards the middle and end of the play, the pacing felt a bit sluggish, and made the ending feel anti-climactic. The play’s sagging action could be tightened by clarifying the moments when Deborah’s options become more and more limited and she finds herself being pinned into her own trap. The final tableaux of the three main characters bound together in a colorful sari cleverly ties in the Ramayana, and brings the play full circle. This production boasts an impressive collection of artists, and a refreshing non-western narrative that incorporates layers of meaning through symbol, theater tradition, with rich aesthetics.

 Empire of the Trees plays at the June Havoc Theatre in the Abington Theatre Arts Complex

312 West 36th St. Second Floor, New York NY 10018 through April 30th.

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