Regional Theater Review: THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST (La Jolla Playhouse)

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by Milo Shapiro on October 21, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

A NOURISHING TREE

While lacking in emotional engagement, Daniel Beaty’s solo outing exploring the life of actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson undoubtedly entertains, educates, inspires, and leaves the audience with a great deal to talk about.

With an international following of his music, stage performances and cinema work, Paul Robeson was one of the best-known black men in the world in his time.  From a career beginning in the early 1920s leading quickly to the London stage and then to the large screen, Robeson’s fame escalated rapidly.  For most people today, his best-known role is that of Joe in Showboat, both in stage revivals and the 1936 film.  Robeson also had an unrelenting need to Daniel Beaty, playwright and star of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at La Jolla Playhouse.further justice in the world on behalf of blacks especially, but also for Jews and the working poor.  This led to his rise as a political activist while maintaining his performance career.

His rich life, unknown or barely remembered by so many Americans, is ripe for stage.  With much of the show in flashback, we know from the onset that Robeson is headed for trouble in the McCarthy era when he discovers with delight that 1940s Russians treat the black man equally, fueling his American speeches just before such talk would deeply hit the proverbial fan.

An Obie winner for writing and performing his solo play Emergency, Beaty became curious about the man behind the voice on the old albums.  In learning about Robeson’s fascinating life, he saw the potential for a show featuring some of Robeson’s hits and wrote the book for The Tallest Tree in The Forest.  As a much Daniel Beaty, playwright and star of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at La Jolla Playhouse.older Robeson in 1975, the character frequently comments directly to us, followed by leaps back in time to view more scenes.

In creating this wonderful multi-dimensional oration, Beaty portrays all of the show’s characters, including scenes with up to three people in one argument.  From 10-year-old Paul to J. Edgar Hoover, Beaty’s precision in body and voice adroitly clarifies his characters without a single costume change or prop to assist him.  Skillful montages of him portraying various radio announcers inform us about Robeson while advancing the plot quickly and efficiently.

Daniel Beaty, playwright and star of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at La Jolla Playhouse.A powerful and superb vocalist in his own right, Beaty brings authority to “Old Man River,” not a song to be treated lightly.  A well-rounded view of Robeson is displayed in the mix of spirituals from his childhood, such as “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” and his better-known tunes such as “Happy Days Are Here Again.”  Most compelling is “Great Day,” during which Beaty keeps interrupting himself to play characters most definitely not making it a great day for Robeson.

No doubt Beaty is tackling an enormous subject, and magically fits in an enormous amount of material in two acts, but it is a bit disappointing that there are a few unanswered questions during the two-act piece.  What becomes of Robeson’s brother?  What was his relationship like with his son?  (We see a beautiful love song to the infant, then almost no mention of him until college.)  It is gratifying for an audience to be taken full-circle when important people from Robeson’s life are introduced; plus, it would give the show a greater arc.

As potent as this “play with music” is, there is one element that keeps the show from being transcendent.  Whether it is a choice of actor Beaty, director Moisés Kaufman, or perhaps an accurate portrayal of Robeson, the character is not particularly emotional.  His range varies from gratified to disturbed to enraged and back again.  Daniel Beaty, playwright and star of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at La Jolla Playhouse.Even his indignation seems a bit precise because we see so much of it in Robeson’s public speeches rather than as a private man.  If Robeson experienced true joy or great sadness, we do not see it.  We are touched by his values, goals, and circumstances more than by the actual man we spend two hours with.

You can learn a lot about this subject in a 1977 documentary film about Robeson titled The Tallest Tree in our Forest (a phrase coined by Mary McLeod Bethune about Robeson).  But historical theater satisfies more when our emotions are engaged.  If Robeson himself was truly so controlled in his emotions, then allowing us to see him controlling them might be what is necessary for us to feel more for this man.  There is one chilling, beautifully-acted two-character scene in Russia where we do get to feel for Robeson, but the situation is different:  It is the absolute necessity for him to control emotion in that moment that leaves us shaken on his behalf.

This caveat aside, The Tallest Tree in the Forest completely holds our attention with a captivating look at one man’s journey which is such a symbol of the American experience. Flawed as our modern world remains, Robeson deeply mattered, and we depart La Jolla Playhouse with an appreciation for the sacrifices of the many Robesons along the way.

Daniel Beaty, playwright and star of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at La Jolla Playhouse.

photos by Don Ipock

The Tallest Tree in The Forest
co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre
La Jolla Playhouse
scheduled to end on Nov 3, 2013
for tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit http://lajollaplayhouse.org/

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