nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 7, 2010
Aunt Leaf is a play for kids that's really for adults, I think. It's not that its story or themes are in any way unsuitable for young audiences: on the contrary, its celebration of the power of storytelling, in whatever unconventional form it may take, is affirming and valuable for people of all ages. But this is very cerebral, very deliberately arty theatre, dressed in shades of sepia both literally and figuratively. The advertisements say that Aunt Leaf is for children ages 9 and up, but I don't think my 9-year-old self would have gotten much out of this show.
That said, my 40-something self found plenty to admire. The play is a fable, written in lovely image-filled prose by Barbara Weichmann, about a girl named Annabelle who discovers the joys and dangers of imagination after she is inspired to venture into worlds of her own making by her eccentric elderly aunt. Weichmann's words are beautiful but dense, the kind of language I'd generally prefer to read and savor rather than try to keep up with when it's spoken from a stage. The text is divided among three actors, none of whom plays a "character" in the strict sense of that word. Instead, Al Benditt, Pal Bernstein, and Rachael Richman—dressed evocatively in ghostly threads from a century ago—take turns relating the twisty tale, sometimes taking on a specific role but more often serving as narrator. At times they speak together; at times one single character—the shy but blossoming Annabelle, for example, or the weirdly charismatic Aunt Leaf—is voiced in rapid succession by each of the actors. To Weichmann and director Jeffrey Mousseau's credit, it's never unclear what's going on or who's who at any particular time.
Mousseau has swathed the play in heavy ghost-story atmosphere. The set, designed by Sarah Edkins, consists of just a few pieces—a fragment of a wall, a table, and the frame of an old grandfather clock—that serve as playroom for the actors and outline of the house where Annabelle resides; during the central section of the play, when Annabelle's imaginings take her out into the mysterious woods beyond her house, the furniture disappears. Ayumu "Poe" Saegusa's lighting is artful but consistently dark, lending a lullaby quality to the piece. Most notable among the design elements is the projection imagery by Robert Flynt, crafted, we are told, from period photographs and depictions of nature (leaves, trees, that sort of thing), and creating a gorgeous visual backdrop/blanket for the world of the play. The period costumes are by Amelia Dombrowski, and the sound is designed by J Hagenbuckle.
Mousseau adds physical interest to the play with the use of plenty of stylized movement, sometimes relying on the familiar vocabularies of avant-garde theatre traditions and sometimes blissfully unexpected. All three actors do wonderful work, making the story as vivid as the production can allow and evoking the period masterfully.
But for all the careful craftsmanship that I witnessed in Aunt Leaf, I still left the theatre unsure what, beyond its evocation of the potency of the storytelling art, I was supposed to get out of the piece. A small study guide included in the program suggests some themes: the change of the seasons, nature as inspiration, the pros and cons of lying. But I didn't feel any of these ideas/lessons imparted in the play itself. I suspect that children who see this show will want to talk to their parents more about its form than its content, which is not a bad thing—I just don't know how conscious I was of the aesthetics of theatrical storytelling back in the days when I was learning arithmetic and spelling.