Ben Randle

THEATRE DIRECTOR

REVIEW, SFWeekly: In Treefall, a Young Cast Rises New Conservatory Theatre

by Chris Trenchard

San Francisco, in all its identities and identity crises, may be the perfect place for a play like New Conservatory Theatre Center's Treefall to spread its primal, jarring gospel of misaligned familial instincts, idiosyncratic faith, and sexual desperation. We, after all, are a varied bunch, never quite sure what being a "San Franciscan" really means, but knowing that somewhere in our sundry ways there's a common bond that goes beyond geography.

In Treefall,  New Conservatory Theatre director Ben Randle (Don't AskDoubtFriends are Forever) has another ambitious work on his hand, from the daring pen of playwright Henry Murray. Randle has said he continues to be drawn to the provocative, and this post-apocalyptic story of three boys who cling to each other for sanity and survival's sake pushes the Randle oeuvre further into the fringes.

The fringes of civilization are exactly where we find our postmodern family, the progeny of women who brought them to safety in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Various apocalyptic forces have claimed the lives of their mothers, and now those feminine spirits remain, which the boys have come to worship. Randle shows us vestiges of a society that women were a part of: a wig from one of their mothers, a dress, lipstick, and high heels, all of which decorate a mannequin on an altar, where the boys pray in memory.

Evan Johnson's Flynn is the de facto Alpha male of the group, and various attempts to manipulate his mercurial "wife" August (Josh Schell) and their quasi-schizophrenic "son" Craig (Sal Mattos) are rationalized as an attempt to keep the family together. The casting of Johnson as the alpha male at first seems odd, given that he comes off more effeminate than Schell. But in a world without women, it makes sense that the straight male with no women to chase would be easily subjugated. In other words, where heterosexuality isn't possible, the homosexual is king of the jungle.

To borrow a recent term, the naïve August is a bit of a Tiger mom to Craig, resenting his childishness and denial of their tragic predicament. At first he is OK with wearing the dress Flynn insists he wear, but foul play between the two forces August to question the merit of their arrangement. Schell's transformation from abiding, role-playing wife to self-discovering man stirs the brain as we reconcile man's need for family and his instinctive sexual desires.

Mattos seems a precocious actor on the scene. His flits between his character's personality and alter-ego are riveting, capturing the bifurcation of an only child left to socialize with dolls (Drew) and his own imagination. While Mattos provides much of the play's comic relief in these moments, he also finds the right amount of innocence in his tone and physicality. We'll expect more bravura from him in the future.

If there's a criticism to impart on these young, maturing actors, it's the delivery of dialogue, which came off as too brisk. We're not completely convinced that these characters are thinking about what they're saying. But when their pace slows and their volume subsides, we see in their eyes characters that feel real.

We're reminded of the power of subtlety when the boys stumble upon a skittish nomad, who goes by the nickname "Bug." At first distrustful of their new friend, they soon discover why their new boyish acquaintance refuses to open up. And how they discover their friend's secret is a clever (and foreshadowing) turn from Murray/Randle. Corinne Robkin, who refreshingly comes to NCT from San Francisco Clown Conservatory (!), plays Bug with a smug charm, but also with an understated bravado.

Kuo-Hao Lo's set is rife with hieroglyphic-like figures on the walls -- faces, numbers with cryptic meanings, and words labeling basic settings are used not only to cue the audience on where we are, but also to suggest these are humans acting instinctually, as our ancestors did at the origin of our species. Christian Mejia's lighting has the refined chiaroscuro of a blue and cubist period painting set in a mountain bunker. Lo, Mejia, and cast work swimmingly together to change scenes organically. Suggestion trumps production value again.

Treefall continues through Feb. 27 at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

Read review at SFWeekly here