by Matthew Falduto
Iowa City – While there is much understandable excitement surrounding the opening of the new Hancher Auditorium, I’m not sure how many people realize that there is a second performance space in the building. Called Strauss Hall, it’s a little black box theatre space, with around 200 seats which are raked for good viewing. It is in this space that my daughter and I enjoyed The Man Who Planted Trees, a wonderful puppetry theatre experience by the Puppet State Theatre Company of Scotland.
Their version of the story was adapted from Jean Giono’s story by Ailie Cohen, Richard Medrington and Rick Conte. Cohen also did the set and puppetry design, while Medrington and Conte are the puppeteers for the show. The show tells the story of a shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, who singlehandedly repopulateeds a forest, demonstrating to all the power of the forest and emphasizing conservation of our natural world.
Medrington portrays the Narrator, Jean. Medrington has a droll manner that is supremely engaging, not unlike your favorite uncle who loves to spin a tale or two. He is the perfect straight man to the breakout star of the show, Dog, a puppet performed by Conte. Dog immediately captures the audience’s attention with his malapropisms, over the top energy, and meaning of life queries about that man who is always right behind him but never speaks to him. Our audience was populated with many kids, and all absolutely adored Dog. Conte is wonderful at manipulating the puppet, making him come alive and his voice is also absolutely perfect. In the program, they note they have performed this show over 1,400 times. Their easy camaraderie as performers is fun to witness, and it seems likely they ad lib a little here and there in the opening dialogue of the show, which helps it maintain a freshness.
Puppetry is an art form that encourages connection to the audience. Medrington, in particular, is a wonderful collaborator with us, bringing the kids in particular into the story easily. There was a joy to the performance that was felt by all, but most definitely by a little boy in the front row, who laughed at every funny moment and spent much of the show on the very edge of his seat, rapt with attention. He was the most obviously enraptured, but I cannot deny that my 40+ year-old self was totally taken in by the humor and sweetness of the story.
In addition to an array of excellent puppets which were a feast for our eyes, the company provided aural, tactile and olfactory experiences as well. The music, which was Canarios by Johannes Kapsberger and Terre by Charles Trenet, added to the story in a lovely and engaging way. In order to offer the feel of a rainy forest, the puppeteers sprayed a little bit (okay a lot) of mist over the audience, to the delight of the children (and some of the adults). And most effectively, they fanned a lavender scent into the audience. All of this transported us to the forest in France in a delightful way.
The set was simple and easily manipulated to create different locations. The use of color – grey in the beginning of the story, red to signify the corrupt government, and green near the end when the forest was thriving – was a powerfully simple way to convey the story progression.
I cannot recommend this delightful show enough. Bring your children (though probably none younger than seven or so as the material will fly over the heads of the youngest kids) and allow the Puppet State Theatre Company of Scotland to transport you back in time with a story full of laughter and joy. The show runs for just two more performances, October 5 and 6. Get tickets here.