March 11, 2005

Syringa Tree Tackles Apartheid, Opens at Kitchen Theater

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Intelligent, humorous and true, The Syringa Tree depicts a life of a family who negotiates their days with the strict socio-political order of the apartheid regime South Africa. The fourth play of the Kitchen Theater’s 14th Mainstage Season, Obie-Award winning The Syringa Tree is based on the memories of its author, South African writer Pamela Gien. Syringa chronicles the maturation, disillusionment and eventual resolution of its heroine, Lizzie. Filtered through the mind of a six-year old child, the narration gracefully moves from disclosures, dreams, danger and dance.

The solo drama is neither didactic nor histrionic in its telling of apartheid. The writing displays a remarkable sincerity to the experience of a young white girl in a politically turbulent and socially uncertain community. Despite the political enormity of the play’s distant geographic and temporal locale, the sentiments are intricately uncomplicated — the tension frighteningly real, immediate and recognizable.

Steve TenEyck’s scenic and lighting design takes the audience to both the mundane and the less than ordinary African dusks and dawns, which are used to measure time. The stage is bare, featuring a vacant African backdrop: a swing and a wooden platform. The brilliant lighting design renders the intangible anxieties of police inspections and the comfort of nightly tuck-ins to the optic field, capturing not only the African sun but also the human sensation as it steers the narration in its span of 40 years.

The single cast member, Dee Pelletier achieves a powerfully engaging and remarkably honest performance, portraying twenty four characters — men and women, black and white, English and Afrikaans, ranging the age three to 82. Pelletier exhibits striking physical aptitude as she, without hint of exhaustion, takes the stage alone for one hundred and five minutes. Her remarkable concentration takes Gien’s writing to emotional heights as she seamlessly shifts from one character to the next.

Without the prior knowledge of the performance’s nature, one is taken aback by the confusion of what easily could have been a garbeled jumble of voices. We quickly forget that there is a single body on stage. Each shift in character is persuasive and unobtrusive to the entirety of the performance.

The Syringa Tree gracefully turns our heads to the nuances of life and personality. It is the quality of our voices, the idiosyncrasies in our gestures and the shadow we project that informs the rest of the world about who we are.

Syringa is not a mere political diatribe against a reprehensible moment in our history. Despite the foreboding inaccessibility and the initial disorientation of one person acting a 24-character drama, dexterous acting, fantastical musical interjections and precise, evocative lighting keep a coherent rhythm that mobilizes the narration of The Syringa Tree. With skill, wit, humor and compassion Sara Lampert Hoover directs an ineradicable portrait of what could only be called humanity. Despite the oscillation from reality to fantasy and high theatricality of the performance, stripped to its bones, we find only a heart.

The Syringa Tree will be performed Thursday through Saturday at 8p.m. and Sunday at 4p.m. until March 26 at the Kitchen Theatre.

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario
Sun Staff Writer