Review: Adult Fairytale ‘The Trees’ Gets to the Root of Modern Angst 

Existential upheaval is fun in this magic-realist mini-epic from Agnes Borinsky that moves the beyond theatrical binaries of comedy and tragedy.

Crystal Dickinson (left) and Jess Barbagallo in ‘The Trees’ at Playwrights Horizons. Chelcie Parry

The Trees | 1hr 40mins. No intermission. | Playwrights Horizons | 416 West 42nd Street | 212-279-4200

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Scratch bark and you’ll find a tale of metamorphosis. From Greek mythology’s #MeTooed Daphne to the Japanese kodama and Celtic Sidhe Draoi, mortals or spirits have transformed into trees for millennia. I say transformed, but trapped is a valid alternative, especially when considering The Trees, playwright Agnes Borinsky’s beguiling fable of belonging. Humane yet posthuman, delivering a bright, shiny message of melancholy, The Trees provides shade from stale stage conventions, and much luscious fruit for thought.

Reeling home from a party one night, Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) and her brother David (Jess Barbagallo) return to their father’s house but seem reluctant to enter. Do bad memories hang around the family hearth? Preferring the outdoors, they roll down a hill and frolic in leaves like kids. “What even counts as home anymore?” asks Sheila, a trifle sadly. They fall sleep outside. Next morning, the two discover that their toes have spread arboreally into the earth. Ambivalent about their roots, the adult siblings have sprouted their own. Now they’re stuck.

What this actually means is up to you. Borinsky’s oneiric vibe (dreamaturgy?) encourages open-ended interpretation. She weaves absurdist scenarios (people-trees) with conversational dialogue (“It’s not the end of the world. . . . I kind of wanted a break”) which makes everything both transparent and opaque. Magic-realist in conception and quotidian in execution, The Trees broaches painful subjects like death, family trauma, and loneliness with the springiness of a bounce house: existential upheaval is fun! When rabbi Saul (Max Gordon Moore), takes a bus from Cleveland to witness the miracle of Sheila and David, he shares that unsettled sense:

“I’ve felt a great sliding in the world. Like we’re all sliding off this planet into somewhere . . . dark and ugly and dead. It seems a little bit like it’s all on autopilot. Like God is off . . . somewhere . . . else. And the plane of the world is off, somehow, and we’re just sliding . . . ”

On one hand, we all relate: screen addiction, politics of hate, carbon emissions—all are making society and the planet unsustainable. Then again, Borinsky might suggest, we can welcome destabilization as the darkness which helps us find the light. 

From left: Ray Anthony Thomas, Pauli Pontrelli, Crystal Dickinson, Nile Harris and Jess Barbagallo in ‘The Trees’ at Playwrights Horizons. Chelcie Parry

So, while not as blithe as Happy Days’ Winnie is to be landfill, Sheila and David adapt to their new leafy lives. Sheila, an architect based in Seattle, and David, a filmmaker who lives in their father’s house in Connecticut, become the center of an ad hoc community in the park. They fascinate Julian (Nile Harris), a dilettantish youth, and the kind, nurturing Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli) both designated “Twinks”; romantic misfit Norman (Ray Anthony Thomas) is first heard lurking in the bushes; and the friendly but sinister Vendor Terry (Sam Breslin Wright) scales up from selling pretzels to constructing a shopping mall around our tree-protagonists. Terry is among the gently handled antagonists, like Sheila’s frenemy Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto) who goes on Target runs but eventually presents Sheila with a bag of receipts for reimbursement. The flamboyant, quick-tempered Jared (Sean Donovan) breaks up (messily) with David but hangs around due to the fact that he’s a supervisor with the municipal planning office and uses his authority in a predictably petty way. When David tries to work with Terry and his plans for the mall, it upsets the alfresco commune and threatens his relationship with Sheila. 

This might sound like the arc of a plot, but The Trees, which follows the changing seasons over seven years, is not in any hurry to pursue a linear story. Instead it can be read as an allegory for the struggle of two forces in our time: the urge to be part of an Earth-centered tribe (roots) and the corporate monoculture (mall) that defines deracinated modern life. That’s the central “conflict” here—if the term’s not too blunt and limiting. Borinsky, a trans writer, is clearly interested in moving beyond theatrical binaries of comedy/tragedy or conflict/resolution, making virtues of normally anti-dramatic qualities such as softness and vagueness, even stupidity. Still, when Sheila and then David tell Terry, “I really don’t want to live in a mall,” I could feel it in my chest. It lands hard. I don’t want to live in a mall, either.   

While only 100 minutes, The Trees (co-produced by Playwrights Horizons and Page 73) is a mini-epic, dense with character chatter that mixes the trivial and the tragic. Who else but the wizardly Tina Satter (Is This A Room) could orchestrate the frisky moods of Borinsky’s vision, from hysterical campiness to desolation and loss, all wrapped in hallucinatory design. The (adorable) company is costumed with rainbow colors by Enver Chakartash. They pop against Parker Lutz’s white pavilion, which suggests an extraterrestrial’s idea of neoclassical architecture. Thomas Dunn’s lime, orange and magenta washes of light and sound designer Tei Blow’s drones and tones soothe and unsettle in equal measure. When so many new plays preach against the obvious ills of our times, or peddle televisual reality, let’s cherish the dreamers and subverters, queering the form so our imagination can climb to the highest branches. 

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Review: Adult Fairytale ‘The Trees’ Gets to the Root of Modern Angst