by SOPHIE KERMAN
I did Nature wrong, and I have to say that I am a little ashamed of myself. Rather than arriving early at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, I had a rushed lunch at home and then sped my way down 494 to make it to Chaska on time. This was my first time at the Arboretum, and I had not even known the place existed until hearing about this play. So my second shameful moment was in failing to allow enough time to walk around the Arboretum’s beautiful grounds and gardens after the play. This was entirely my fault: the play’s 100-minute run time allows plenty of leeway to enjoy your surroundings before or after the show (unless, like me, you have foolishly made other plans soon afterward).
I would not be telling you all this, were it not for the fact that my mistakes are exactly the point of the play. Although it is ostensibly about the friendship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, more than anything, Nature is a plea to lay your busy life to the side and simply go on a walk.
TigerLion Arts calls Nature a “walking play”, which means that each scene takes place in a different part of the gardens. This is a smart way to handle set changes, but it is also deeply consistent with the play’s philosophy. At every step of the way, we are urged to reconnect with our surroundings: in the Arboretum, the crabapple trees are full of fruit, the wildflowers are blooming, and the bright sunlight in the fields will bring a welcome warmth to your face when you step out of the shade. Those with limited mobility will be happy to hear that the paths are paved, and it never takes more than a minute or two to get between locations. (On the other hand, audience members with a lot of energy may be frustrated that they can’t just take a break from the play to go on a longer stroll. As I said, set aside some time afterwards!)
Aside from providing an opportunity to appreciate the natural world, Nature stages a more profound debate about political engagement. While Emerson (Tyson Forbes) advocates bringing change to the world through public discourse, Thoreau (John Catron) becomes a hermit, preferring to minimize his environmental footprint as much as possible. Much of the script is drawn directly from original texts by Emerson and Thoreau, and Forbes and Catron do an excellent job bringing the eloquent prose to life while imbuing it with their characters’ distinct personalities. Despite their vastly different approaches, one gets the sense that both would be shocked at our current way of life. (Their biggest philosophical disagreement is over the construction of the railroad, which, although reminiscent of some recent debates over the Southwest Light Rail, does not even come close to the labor and noise pollution involved in our everyday roads, factories, and blinking, beeping electronic devices.)
The core of this play is in its philosophy, and we are reminded of that by the chime that is rung three times to cue the beginning and end of each scene: if you are familiar with meditation techniques, the sound might be a welcome reminder to open your senses to the present moment. But Nature also has its fun and playful side, brought out by a committed ensemble and some very creative staging. There is a boisterous scene at the cabin by Walden Pond that initially felt incongruous to me – my first response was to wonder whether the show was just pandering to the children in the audience. Upon further reflection, I am less bothered. After all, the woods aren’t just contemplative; they’re also really fun.
Nature‘s entire artistic process was clearly thought out holistically, from its subject matter, to its integration of music (notably Norah Long‘s enthralling soprano), to its choice of locations. All philosophy aside, the play is worth it purely for the excuse to appreciate the Landscape Arboretum on what will almost certainly be one of the last nice days of fall. But Emerson’s and Thoreau’s arguments for simplification are very pertinent and may lead you to reconsider the way you prioritize your own time. The program even includes a “Field Journal” with questions to encourage further reflection on our relationship with nature. The conclusion I drew from my viewing experience: I need to make more time for walks.
Nature: a walking play, created by Tyson Forbes. Presented by TigerLion Arts at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, MN, September 12 – October 12, 2014 at 1 and 5 pm. Information and tickets ($15-25) at http://www.tigerlion.org/nature.