To Tree Recommended By
TimeOut Chicago, Chicago Critic, Around the Town Chicago,
Splash Magazine, Chicago Theatre Beat, & Flavorpill
Reviewed by Emily Gordon
An inventor morphs into a fly; a mermaid becomes human; a healthy person turns into an immobile one. Aaron Golden’s new play gives equal attention to the struggles of the changeling and the ambivalent witness to the change. Julian (Lance Newton) and Peter (Christopher Hart) are young journalists whose paths diverge in an Indiana cornfield, where Julian has planted himself with the goal of gradually becoming a conifer: “To tree” is an infinitive verb.
The seriousness of the two actors’ focus establishes the potentially cutesy premise as, in fact, dangerously real—an admirable feat on a set composed of a square of hilly Astroturf. While standing stock-still, Newton animates and improves on his character, whose motives and methods for switching species are convoluted; what matters, as yogis and tango dancers might say, is the commitment to stillness. Golden’s script tilts from frat-house banter to newspaperman patter to moral truisms, sometimes pausing—to electrifying but unresolved effect—on class and racial conflicts. Of course, Hart’s cajoling and Newton’s laser-cut disdain would come to nothing if the titular tree failed to persuade. Set designer Ian James Anthony creates a miracle onstage whose rough, poetic design lends redwood rings of truth to a fraught and evolving friendship.
Reviewed by Tom Williams
To Tree unfolds as a thoughtful friendship fable
Provocative two-hander, To Tree, is an allegorical tale of friendship, loyalty and acceptance. Now in a world premiere at the Heartland Studio in Rogers Park, playwright Aaron Golden’s To Tree uses a strange devise to tell his fable -Julian (a disciplined performance by Lance Newton) is so disillusioned with being human that he decides to become a tree -literally! Director M. William Panek has Julian strip to his boxers then stand at attention with his feet entangled in grass. Julian never moves his arms or legs and barely moves his head and eyes except to speak to his old college roommate, Peter (Christopher Hart).
Once Peter gets word from Julian’s “feeder” that Julian has renounced being human in favor of becoming a tree, Peter is compelled to come to rural Indiana to aid his troubled old friend and ex-college roommate. Filled with humor and zinging retorts, we slowly start to understand and even empathize with Julian’s bold decision and Peter’s total acceptance of Julian’s absurd quest.
Since both are journalists always in search of a story, Peter ‘interviews’ Julian who eagerly wants to explain why he has chosen to become a tree. Their discussions force Peter to reexamine all his thoughts about biology, relationships, and the nature of what it is to be ‘human.’ This intelligent and empathetic 80 minute one-act drama subtly becomes believable despite its absurdist bent.
The honesty by Julian and Peter and their complete loyalty not only binds the two but is the basis of their friendship making their it pure enough to be paralleled as love, since total acceptance is the necessary for both friendship and love.
The strong, articulate and disciplined performance by Lance Newton is impressive. Christopher Hart’s nice guy and truthful take on friendship is winning. The work of these two covers for the lack of details as to how Julian can actually be transformed into a tree and Peter’s finding a cure if Julian decides to revert back. To Tree is a sly little work that creeps up and stimulates us into reexamining our meaning of life and what the essence of being human is about. How guilt can consume our lives leading us to drastic actions to ‘make things right.’ Julian sure has a unique take on morality. This moving work is worth seeing as it begs further discussion on the ride home.
Around the Town Chicago
Reviewed by Alan Bresloff
One of the enjoyable aspects of being a theater reviewer is getting to view some of the smaller companies and the new and exciting work they bring to the little “storefront” theaters. One of these companies, a fairly new one, The Brown Paper Box Co. ( a strange name, but a bright young company) is now using the intimate Heartland Studio in Rogers Park, to present the World Premiere of Aaron Golden’s “To Tree” a strange little 80 minute story about two college buddies that deals with “change” and friendship. Under the direction of M.William Panek, on a very sparse set by Ian James Anthony with very simple lighting by Eric Phillips and some wonderful original music by James Riley, we are witness to a story about a man who has decided that his life no longer has meaning and that due to what he has done in his life, he is no longer fit to be a human, so he decides to become a tree.
While the premise sounds strange, even insane, as the story unforlds, we bear witness to mush more than a crazy man who’s best friend tries to reason with him about this weird concept. The two actors, Lance Newton, who for most of the play stands in one spot and Christopher Hart, his college buddy are both writers, one in Chicago and the other in a small Indiana town. Julian (Newton) has decided that he can no longer live with what he caused and through “self animation” will become a tree. He has advised a local gardener to call his old college roommate Peter to come and write the story.
What we have in the three scenes following is the discussions between these two men where they examine their very existence, looking at relationships, integrity and even biology. Golden’s dialogue is more than just words, but an honest look at how we view others and how we make judgements based on appearance more than honesty and reality. While there are some funny moments, one would have to call this a “think piece” causing each audience member to re-examine their own thoughts about some of the topics discussed.
What starts out as an inane topic, become a clash of cultures between the two men and not to give away the ending which is quick and abrupt, the soul searching that each man faces is what makes this play work. Each character has to look at their own lives and adjust to the reality of what is right and wrong and how they can deal with what faces them. I was very impressed by Newton and his ability to be able to stand in one spot for almost 80 minutes as we watch his physical changes along with his thoughts. Hart, on the other hand, writes his story and changes his demeanor as well. His ideals change a bit as he watches Julian (Newton) transform from a quiet, brooding man to a tree.
Brown Paper Box is dedicated to creating plays that are thought provoking theatrical experiences with very simple sets, costumes and overall “glitz”, in order for the audience to be able to focus on the playwright’s words. In “To Tree”, they have accomplished this to the ultimate.
Reviewed by Noel Schecter
To Tree, the new play written by Aaron Golden and directed by M. William Panek, involves a mystery of the surreal type. What would compel a creative, principle young man to no longer wish to be human? In fact, what would make that same person instead wish to be nothing more than a tree? The answer to this question is ultimately provided in the satisfying and thought provoking play To Tree.
To Tree is about two friends, Peter Claypool and Julian Fisher, who have grown distant since graduating from journalism school. Peter, a quick talking and cynical type, writes for the Chicago Tribune while Julian has most recently worked for a small magazine. Peter is reunited with his old friend after receiving word that Julian has improbably planted himself in an Indiana field. While Julian gradually transforms into a tree, they debate and navigate the tricky road of ethics and friendship. Issues related to character and integrity also take center stage as Peter slowly pieces together the events leading to Julian’s decision to take root.
At the heart of To Tree is the relationship between Peter and Julian. Christopher Hart (Peter) andLance Newton (Julian) play well off each other. Christopher Hart especially stands out in his portrayal of Peter Claypool. In a play that requires more than a little suspension of disbelief, Christopher Hart is thoroughly convincing as a caring, but sometimes ruthless friend. Lance Newton (as Julian Fisher) took some time to find the rhythm of his role, but shined during the more emotionally charged moments of the play. His gradual transformation into oak is done well with an emphasis put on his diminished senses. Together, the two actors fit well into the play.The dialogue throughout the play is intelligent and convincing. Besides the previously mentioned issues of integrity and character, the actors touch on race and personal history in a way that never seems contrived. At times To Tree is funny, but it is never silly and the story is always taken seriously. The fourth wall is also always respected and I think that this was a wise choice given the small confines of the Heartland Theater. The cozy Heartland Theater has less than thirty seats and subsequently promotes a fragile intimacy that would probably become overwhelming if an actor were to let down his guard. The production also makes good use of limited resources as the set design consisted primarily of astro turf and bark wraps. Lighting and music is used effectively to separate scenes as well as to convey elapsed time.
Bottom line: To Tree is recommended. Not everyone will appreciate this surreal and thought provoking play, but for those willing to give To Tree a chance, they will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Stefanie Gayle McCormack
Peter and Julian, two former roommates, are maturing into adulthood — only Julian would rather mature into a tree. Denouncing his humanity to join kingdom Plantae, Julian (Lance Newton) is hell-bent on becoming a tree. Part absurd, part illogical, Aaron Golden's nonsense play clicks as the mystery behind Julian's self-reanimation unravels. Just as a tree relies on soil for support and water, Julian finds strength and his eventual metamorphosis through Peter (Christopher Hart). Newton's performance is full of wonderful commitment; and Hart brings the laughs, as Newton has no choice but to often play the straight man/tree.To Tree uproots any childhood memory you have of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and elevates symbiosis to a dark and bizarre level.”
Chicago Theatre Beat
Review by J.H. Palmer
In the opening scene of Aaron Golden’s original piece, To Tree, Julian Fisher (Lance Newton) appears on a sparse stage and begins to slowly and deliberately undress, one piece of clothing at a time, each carefully folded and stacked in a pile before he removes the next. He gets down to his boxers, sticks his thumbs in the elastic waistband for a moment before looking out into the audience (who laugh uncomfortably), and thinks better of it. He walks to center stage, where he literally plants his feet in a fold in the Astroturf that represents the outdoors, where he remains for the duration of the play.
Scene two introduces us to Peter Claypool (Christopher Hart), a former journalism classmate of Julian’s who comes upon him standing in the dirt clad in only his boxers, and asks him what he is doing. Julian has tired of his “almost indescribable disgust and disillusionment with humanity,” is “done promoting our species,” and has decided to become a tree. Peter is incredulous, pointing out the impossibility of Julian’s planned metamorphosis, and poking fun at him with sophomoric name calling and teasing him about Katie, Peter’s fiancée, who Julian once had a crush on, and perhaps still does.
The next scene takes place two months later, when Peter returns to interview Julian for an article, further delving into his reasons for deciding to become a tree, and by then Julian has begun to grow a tree trunk that begins at his feet and goes up to his knees. He is surrounded by garbage that has been dropped near him by passersby, and when he speaks, has a habit of keeping his eyes closed, further isolating him from the human world.
In scene four, a year into his metamorphosis, Julian’s wooden trunk has grown to his waist, and the story starts to get more interesting: his true motivations for wanting to become a tree are finally revealed when Peter does some investigative work. What follows is an exploration of guilt, and how Julian has chosen to process it. In the final scene, Julian has become wooden up to his neck, and Peter leans against him and casually eats an apple in a scene that made me think – in an absurd way, of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”
This is an absurdist play, one that relies almost entirely on dialogue, and is sparsely staged. Peter becomes more likeable and interesting as the play unfolds, and the story becomes more believable the further we travel into it. I wondered at Newton’s ability to stand in one place for 80 minutes; by the end he is visibly swaying, his eyes entirely closed. It’s like watching someone pay penance by wearing a hair shirt, which is essentially what Julian has chosen to do. This piece is thought provoking, absurd, and focuses largely the inner life of one man. I considered the fact that I, like Julian, had been sitting in one place the entire time. Guilt and redemption are represented through the metaphor of Julian’s transformation, leaving one to ponder the meaning of it all.