The Syringa Tree
With one energetic, talented actor and a tree swing, the audience experiences the stories of 24 separate characters during the apartheid period in South Africa. Elana Chan of CJSF Radio attended the opening performance of Pamela Gien’s The Syringa Tree at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on March 31, 2007.
The Syringa Tree is a story primarily told through the eyes of 6-year-old Elizabeth, growing up in South Africa in the 1960s. She likes to sit on the swing hanging from the syringa tree in her backyard; the same tree around which black family servants dance around at night and in which those without “special paper” hide from the police. Living in the midst of the apartheid state, the child tells you about what she saw and the people she met, with sharp curiosity and observations similar to that little Scout portrays in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Caroline Cave, an actor and dancer, uses sharp contrasts in her speaking and singing voice with distinct body movements to portray these 24 contrasting, colourful and passionate characters. Through her high energy performance, the audience recognizes the innocence of a child, the pure joy and playfulness of a toddler, the kindness in a doctor who stands firmly in his beliefs, and the constant apprehension of a single mother. While the narrative of child does not include politics, one can sense the tensions the loom over all their lives, and worry for Elizabeth’s sake as opposing voices are getting louder in the unstable state.
The use of the only prop – a swing – reflects the simplicity in life, the way a 6-year-old sees the world. It is a story about people with intertwined experiences. A play of such complexity presented by a single artist is an interesting choice, and one can argue that such style of theatre enables the magnification of more subtle, contained conflicts between characters. The audience notices changes in tone of voice, body language, and choice of words in their dialogues – qualities that can be overlooked in performance of several actors.
Pamela Gien wrote and previously performed The Syringa Tree. While made up mostly of fictional characters, the elements of the plots were drawn upon vivid memories from her childhood in South Africa. It is neither a historical nor a political play. Gien wants the performance to flow continuously, like a dance. While this is a very good vehicle in keeping momentum, sitting for a 100 minute straight may be difficult even for the most engaged audience. One might also wonder where and how the story would develop when there is no apparent, straight-forward resolution that would bring peace for everyone, especially when the climax cannot be readily identified.
The Syringa Tree is performed at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre until April 21, 2007. For more information, please visit www.vancouverplayhouse.com. Don’t miss your chance to experience this rare, energy-filled performance!