Monday, September 21, 2015

"Nature" by TigerLion Arts at the St. John's University Arboretum

Nature is truly one of the most special and unique theater experiences I've ever had, and I've had a lot of theater experiences in the last five years of writing this blog, and in the years before. This "outdoor walking play" about the lives, writings, and friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau was created in 2010 by TigerLion Arts' Tyson Forbes (a descendant of Emerson) and Markell Kiefer, et al., and has continued to be developed into its current form as the touring production known as Nature for the Nation. With the state of our global and local environment, it's quite obvious this that Nation needs Nature, and this piece is a beautiful way to connect to, explore, and comment on Nature. And beyond that, it's an incredibly inventive and unique piece of theater that is a perfect illustration of the concept "content dictates form." When your content is the very personal and yet infinite idea of Nature herself, there is no better form that getting the audience out in Nature while watching, and participating in, this experience. Nature is everything I love about theater, combining comedy, drama, music, physicality of performance, physicality of the audience in walking through the space, creativity, an inspiring true story, and a stunningly gorgeous natural location.

Nature leads the way through the SJU Arboretum
I first saw Nature last year at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, where it played for several weekends in the late fall. It's definitely one of those shows you can see multiple times; it's such a rich and full experience with so much to take in, and it's different every time due to the main character, ever-changing Nature. This year's tour presents multiple opportunities to see it again. I was invited to the opening in Minneapolis, but I decided I'd rather see it at St. John's University, my alma mater (technically I went to St. Ben's, but they're really the same school). Every fall I visit the SJU campus with my family (most of whom live in the St. Cloud area, many of whom attended or are attending CSB or SJU) to walk through the woods and have a picnic by the lake. This is one of the places where I have felt a connection to Nature over the years, so I wanted to experience Nature there. And to make it even more special, my super-talented 16-going-on-17-year-old cousin and goddaughter Greta was part of the community chorus, and it was a perfectly gorgeous fall day, making it well worth the 150-mile roundtrip.

the cast of Nature at the Arboretum last year
As at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum last year, the play took place in four locations at the SJU Arboretum, a place I'd never visited in my 20-year history with the campus. The community chorus (gathered from local volunteers at each location who rehearse on their own and briefly with the cast, which in this case happened to also include Mark McGowan, co-founder and former member of my favorite a capella group Tonic Sol-Fa) led us to the first location - a church. It was there that the play began with the introduction of Emerson and Thoreau and their early lives. We followed them to a prairie hill with grasses blowing in the breeze as we watched the friends take a walk, something they loved so dearly. Next we paid a visit to Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin, where we learned more about the complicated friendship between these very different men who shared a love of and respect for Nature, but went about it in different ways. Finally we watched Thoreau working in the fields, while "progress" started to overtake Nature, much to his dismay and disgust. This is where the conflict set in, as we followed the story back through the various locations and ended where we began - at the church. We have traveled with this story through time and space and Nature, and come full circle having experienced something truly beautiful.

Emerson (Tyson Forbes) and Thoreau (John Catron)
Most of the cast from last year returns to the tour this year, forming an absolutely delightful, playful, and endlessly watchable ensemble that includes Kate Guentzel as Emerson's wife Lydian, Kimberly Richardson as his aunt Moody (and choreographer), and too many wonderful people to mention (check the tags at the end of this post for a few). Tyson Forbes and John Catron are Emerson and Thoreau once again, and are the perfect embodiment of these two men and their friendship. For at its heart, this really is a love story - in the friendship of these two men and their love for a third party that drew them together. No, not Lydian, although there was a bit of a soap opera love triangle there. Their most important love was for Nature herself. And I cannot imagine anyone else as Nature than Norah Long. She is Nature personified, with her golden halo of curls blowing in the breeze, a look of absolute serenity and oneness on her face, and a voice like the goddess herself (and my cousin tells me she was also wonderful working with the chorus in their rehearsals and the performances). The music provided by Norah (she also plays by the violin), Andrew Forbes (playing bagpipes, flute, guitar, etc.), the cast, and the chorus is so lovely and transporting and perfectly appropriate to the time period and the setting.

There are so many wonderful things about Nature that I can't even begin to tell you about all of them (the whimsical sound effects, the exaggerated apple-eating, the charming letter delivery). It truly is something you need to experience yourself. Return to Nature, take a walk, watch the sky through the trees, be embraced by the earth, and let this talented group of artists take you on a journey that you'll never forget. There are two more stops on the 2015 Nature for the Nation tour, south of the Twin Cities at Gustavus and Carleton Colleges (more info here). But Nature never ends, and hopefully neither will Nature. They're hoping to take it on a National tour, eventually arriving in Concord in 2017 for the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth.This beautiful and important story, so well and appropriately told, needs to be heard and is an absolute joy to experience.