The Man Who Planted Trees

The Man Who Planted Trees
Adapted and performed by Richard Medrington and Rick Conte. Puppet State Theatre Company. Arts Centre Melbourne. April 10 – 14, 2013

A charming and challenging story told with exceptional skill.

There is little mystery in this performance, the title says it all; there was a man who planted trees plentifully and persistently. What the performance does give us is a way to appreciate his motivation and the astonishing environmental and social impact of his ongoing act of grace and generosity.

The piece starts with a man (Richard Medrington) walking onto stage and waiting on one of a pair of chairs. If I intended to amuse a theatre full of children with a few adults sprinkled through the audience, I wouldn’t necessarily start that way. Yet, he makes it work. It was at this point that I was quite sure I was in for a treat. Not so much as a glance at his watch and yet he made the empty chair heavy with waiting. So, when the other chap (Rick Conte) turned up adjusting his clothes we were glad he’d made it.

He introduced the dog who is a cheery, cheeky foil for the actors and the audience’s way into the story. There was no attempt to hide the manipulation of the puppets or that the dog’s voice is provided by Rick Conte. It is a tribute to his focus and commitment that nothing was taken away from the character of the dog.

The characters were introduced in a prologue that also placed the actors as ‘narrator’ and ‘the other one’ who did most of the puppetry and moved the simple props and backgrounds around. The dialogue was quick and clean with plenty of child friendly jokes. Dog: “I’ve been to the doctor and had my eyes tested and I got the results. My eyes are buttons – I can’t see a thing!” The theatre erupted with delighted giggles.

When the audience was well warmed up we were led into the story. As we were introduced to the area where the story is set we were treated to the sensory part of the performance with the smell of lavender being spread through the audience on a large fan. The music and sound effects (Taylor Jones) had a French overtone and the lighting (Bernie Manchee) unobtrusively did its job.

The story moved along apace through humble beginnings, two World Wars, and ending up with a mighty forest more than 30 kilometres across and the dog who was then 280 dogs years old.

There were a number of ongoing jokes including the stick piece. The dog would freeze when the stick appeared and follow its movement with vast attention. On the throw the dog would bounce off. The first time I watched the dog, the second time I watched the puppeteer who displayed the same complete attention.

Spreading of smells was used twice, but both were eclipsed by spraying the audience with a water gun which produced the best kind of controlled mayhem. The audience was cleverly settled and the performance drew to a close with the death of the shepherd. The strength of the performance was demonstrated by the very few dry eyes left in the theatre.

This is theatre with a message. There are a few to choose from: be nice to dogs, plant trees, persist, ordinary people can make a significant difference and not all heroes are known or acknowledged. The fact that seeds were given out as we left makes me think it is the tree one they wanted us to act on.

Ruth Richter

Photographer: Chris Bennion

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