Fort Worth — On a lovely Friday summer evening driving out to far, far west Fort Worth (White Settlement really), I did not know what to expect other than what my editor told me, which wasn’t much. To wit: Hip Pocket Theatre is out in the boonies, full of bugs and critters, but well worth the trip.
HPT is a Texas destination arts institution founded by the husband and wife polymath theatrical duo of Johnny and Diane Simons, along with composer Douglas Balentine in 1977. This internationally recognized ensemble theater has staged hundreds of productions over the years, including 150 world premieres, countless outreach programs, and traveling productions all over the world.
Tree Pop (Seen Unseen & the Real Unreal), the second show in HPT’s 39th season, fits in perfectly with the Simons’ aesthetic of whimsy and engaging innovation. The play, written by Lake Simons and John Dyer (composer and musician) was first developed at The Freight in Cambridge, N.Y. in 2014, with further help by a Seed Grant from the Jim Henson Foundation, and finally created collaboratively with the cast (“past and present”): CB Goodman, Yoko Myoi, Justin Perkins, Rachael Shane, Kiyoko Kashiwagi, Frieda Austin, Brian Cook, Christina Cranshaw, Allen Dean, Jeff Stanfield and Caroline Watson.
Lake (Johnny and Diane’s youngest daughter), is a New York City-based theater artist who studied at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, France, collaborated with Koryu Nishikawa V of the Kuruma-Ningyo Puppet Theatre in Japan, and has worked with internationally renowned puppeteer Basil Twist.
Lake’s movement and puppetry training, along with her commedia sensibilities, shine through in this “imaginative pageant amongst the pines—an ode to friends that leave and objects that speak.” Lake, who also directs and performs in the ensemble, created the show for her late friend Bobby Bethea to make him “smile and wonder.”
Truly introspective, if a bit pleasantly confused, grins abound in this “meditation on and exploration of play, memory, passing, and the life of objects.” A word like “meditation” is especially apt because Tree Pop does not have a plot per se. This does not mean nothing is happening or it’s just a jumble; there is a sense of order that the characters try to impose on their surroundings that slowly builds to a beautiful tension of chaos and symmetry.
A simple set (really there is none) inhabiting a charmingly rustic wooden amphitheater transports us to a forest, or “Christmas Tree Village.” A cast of characters begins to populate the stage as the sun goes down and the crickets and cicadas begin to sing their night noises to supplement John Dyer’s live music.
There are “trees” wearing costumes (Lake Simons, Kimberly Smires) suggesting their arboreal nature, costume-trading train conductors (Cranshaw, Cook, Dean, and Stanfield), a Whitman-esque Old Poet (Cranshaw), an avian-footed Bird Watcher (Lake), an indeterminate creature who may be a beaver, squirrel, chipmunk, or jaguar (Lake and Austin), and a Tree Doctor (Watson). Puppets (designed by Lake) also make appearances in mini-meta tableaux.
The actors move with deliberate precision, almost like a slow Noh dance, to weave a spell that is equal parts children’s show and abstract expressionism with notes of Chaplin and Keaton.
It is shocking how delightful and transporting the play is. This short show (50 minutes) of barely an hour seems much longer—yet not nearly long enough. Lake’s direction bespeaks a passion to communicate the nearly uncommunicable while entertaining an audience with her attempts at expression. What may sound esoteric or self-indulgent on paper is nothing of the sort.
The journey to HPT may be long (especially for those of us who drove from Allen), but think of the travel as a form of pre-show that makes the destination and experience more than the sum of their dreamlike parts.