Review: Siblings Are Rooted to the Ground in Agnes Borinsky’s Surrealist The Trees
Upon walking into Playwrights Horizons, we are greeted by a stark, all-white set featuring stylized columns. We can assume these are the title figures of Agnes Borinsky’s new play, The Trees, though scenic designer Parker Lutz eschews any literal or realistic design elements. Lutz instead takes a de Chirico route reflecting the play itself, which lands at the intersection of absurdism and surrealism.
In The Trees (a coproduction with Page 73), a pair of siblings, David (Jess Barbagallo) and Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) find themselves enjoying a local park by their childhood home in Connecticut, where David still lives. They somehow become rooted in the ground–stuck, now part of the park. Sheila, who lives in Seattle, immediately thinks of work, meetings, her flight; David wants to avoid telling his boyfriend (Sean Donovan). What follows is an exploration of being rooted to places, people, ideas, philosophies, ways of life, and ways of living.
David and Sheila are never transformed in any literal way, they spend the whole show standing, planted on circular platforms that sometimes move vertically. Lutz’s set likewise grows and transforms in subtle ways, combining with Enver Chakartash’s lights to signal seasonal as well as environmental changes. Director Tina Satter shapes this world with an expert hand, lending texture, tone, and transitions to guide the audience along the way.
Throughout the play we see a menage of characters (it boasts an impressively large cast of 12) who enter one at a time, evoking the episodic nature of Alice in Wonderland. They are all some degree of caricature, often defined by a single trait, like the Polish-speaking grandmother (Danusa Trevino) or the flaky friend (Becky Yamamoto).
Over the course of 100 minutes, these minor figures pop up, develop, and form a tight knit community, an ecosystem, around David, Sheila, and the park. When they come together for the penultimate scene the payoff is worth the wait and the cast size more than justifies itself.
Toward the end of the play, Saul (Max Gordon Moore), a rabbi, quotes a section of the Torah that says when you attack a city, you can destroy whatever you want, but you are not allowed to cut down trees that bear fruit. It’s a beautiful passage, and one that seems to have inspired this entire play. In hearing Saul discuss it, everything clicks into place, the themes all align beautifully, and the interpretive potential for the play opens up.
While a play in which two characters become trees is, honestly, weird, Borinsky transforms trees into a symbol of infinite possibilities. David and Sheila become Rorschach tests who can be read in myriad ways, and it is almost guaranteed you’ll find something that resonates with you emotionally.
I’m a a New York transplant from Connecticut and have siblings there that I would love to be even closer to, so I emotionally responded to the familial plane of the play, where two a brother and sister, geographically separated, end up having to spend the rest of their lives literally next to each other, rekindling and reconnecting. It’s easy to think about this play in light of the pandemic, which brought many back home or kept people stuck in non-ideal places. It can also be viewed as feeling symbolically stuck, perhaps in a job or relationship or living situation, or about the frustrations of relying on others, a distaste for your surroundings, struggles with cycles of inaction, or feelings of helplessness or lack of inertia in our everyday lives.
Or, it could just be about trees. The play has a great deal to say about the environment and our relationship to it, the way we treat and mistreat it. There’s a legal question throughout the play of whether David and Sheila count as people (and therefore are trespassing) or as trees (and therefore part of the park). The very difference highlights just how different we treat humans and nature.
An important figure in the play is Terry (Sam Breslin Wright), a man who initially shows up to sell chips and water out of a cooler when people start to come and gawk at David and Sheila. Over the course of the play he begins to make use of the situation in other ways, commodifying and turning a profit however he can. He also, though, cares about the siblings. Things get murky when he and David plan a construction project for the park to secure David and Sheila’s future safety (both physical and financial), but one that feels both morally and emotionally fraught for the siblings. The play leaves us with critical questions about not only how we want to be treated but also about how, where, and with whom we want to live out our lives.
The Trees is a beautifully bizarre piece of theater that is both deeply moving and extremely thought-provoking. It will stay with you and the more you think about it, the more layers you will notice, the more meaning you find, and the more in awe of its poetry you’ll become.