Nature — Image courtesy TigerLion Arts

Nature

TigerLion Arts
Directed by Markell Kiefer

TigerLion Arts’s production of Nature, directed by Markell Kiefer, may be less of a play in the conventional sense and more of an explication of the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson (playwright Tyson Forbes) and Henry David Thoreau (John Catron) through movement, dialogue, and music, but it is still very much worth your while. Emerson and Thoreau both believed that the divine manifested itself most strongly and clearly in the natural world, and, after spending a few hours tromping to and fro in the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Garden for Wildlife, even the most indoorsy of audience members will likely be inclined to agree with them.

Theater at its best creates a convincing miniature world, one that pulses with relevance regardless of where and when it is set, and one can’t help but feel this urgent energy in Nature when Thoreau, to use one example, talks about the different types of birds thriving at Walden Pond while actual birds sing in the background. Similarly, when Thoreau laments the railroad’s encroachment upon his idyllic solitude, we too feel assaulted by the clanking steam-filled behemoth invading the garden we have come to love along with him.

The above moments aren’t the only ones in Nature where the audience feels tangibly involved. We are addressed as members of the congregation while sitting in the pew-like benches of the first scene, are forced to walk amongst multitudes cacophonous enough to make Walt Whitman proud as we travel from one staging area to another, and also become part of the somber funeral procession for a gone-before-his-time Thoreau. This audience involvement, our role in making the production feel whole, meshes beautifully with Emerson’s convictions that each person, indeed, each molecule in the world is of pivotal importance and is perfected by finding and doing the work that it resolutely should be doing and nothing else. At the moments in the play where we are expected to partake, we are, in true Emersonian fashion, tapping into the same type of cosmic knowledge that allows grass to know when to burst through the soil or ice to know when and how to melt.

Nature isn’t a play that you go and see. It is a play that you experience and one that experiences you. This attests to how deeply the writer, cast, and director have absorbed the language and ethos of transcendentalism. Along these same lines, the production incorporates movement and song so seamlessly and so exuberantly that one can’t help but feel that tribute is being paid to the divinely messy oneness that both Emerson and Thoreau believed in so adamantly. The many interwoven layers of music, sound, dialogue, and character interaction makes one feel that they are observing the choreography of an entire world — too intricate, too swiftly moving to take in all at once, but nonetheless perfect, with every part busy and wholly fulfilled in its business.

Nature — Image courtesy TigerLion ArtsOne does not need to be well versed in the writings of the transcendentalists in order to enjoy Nature. The clear joy that has gone into the staging and delivery is intoxicating whether one is familiar with the underlying philosophical principles or not. This being said, the only moment in the production where I found myself squirming a little was during the declaration, made after Thoreau’s death, that despite the estrangement that occurred late in their friendship, both men’s love of nature makes them one. This struck me as a bit of a gloss, in that Emerson and Thoreau believed that all things pulse with the same divine energy, and hence are inextricably one, regardless of something as insignificant (on the grand scale) as the parting of two friends.

Over and above semantics, the ideological differences between the two men, which the play does a good job highlighting, are not so minimal that a simple love of nature can serve as a cure- all. Despite Emerson’s declaration that society is constantly attempting to keep man from discovering his divine purpose, he was very reliant upon social endorsement. He made his living as a lecturer and traveled almost constantly throughout the U.S. and Europe. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t also an activist. He was an outspoken critic of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, as well as an abolitionist and an early advocate of women’s rights. Be this as it may, Emerson’s “change the system from within” approach contrasts starkly to Thoreau’s withdrawal from society, most exemplified by the more than two years he spent at Walden Pond. Along with his years of hermetical solitude, Thoreau went to jail when he refused to pay the poll tax, helped escaped slaves travel north, and lamented progress in nearly all forms (e.g., the railroads, agricultural technologies, and, my favorite, the post office). Whereas Emerson was a prolific writer and speaker, Thoreau felt his days were better spent walking in the woods and subsisting on the earth he farmed.

I bring this up to show that Emerson and Thoreau — both singular minds, gifted writers, and astute social commentators — beautifully exemplify a paradox that is still very much with us today: Is political radicalism better served by negotiating with society or removing oneself from it? Emerson was perhaps changed by society more than he intended (as seen in Nature by his obsession with European culture at the expense of his family), and Thoreau, as a perpetual outsider, perhaps did not influence the world he so dearly loved to critique as much as he could have if he had entered it a little more often (as seen by the fact that he would rather tend his bean patch than go on speaking tours). The role and responsibility of the public intellectual, what they sacrifice in order to be heard by the masses, what they miss out on in order to remain ideologically uncompromised and safely peripheral, is too contentious, too complex of a topic to be dismissed simply by declaring that “love of nature” is the glue that holds two significantly different approaches together. This being said, it is true that Emerson and Thoreau, at least in the early years of their friendship, nurtured and inspired one another, and most likely this is what Nature is hoping to leave its audience with.

In any case, the above quibble in no way overshadows the production’s energy, intelligence, or uniqueness. Nature plays at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum until October 12. You would be hard pressed to find a better way to spend a fall afternoon than enjoying some truly memorable theater and, since the ticket price includes arboretum admission, strolling around the grounds afterward to see if you can find a little bit of the awe-inspiring truth, the purifying beauty that Emerson and Thoreau believed could only fully be grasped by observing the natural world and celebrating our place in it.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.