It is rare for children's theater to please both its target audience and the adults who tag along as chaperones, but The Man Who Planted Trees is a shining exception. I attended a Monday morning performance at the Murray Studio Theater of Ruth Eckerd Hall in the company of about 130 elementary school children, and I don't know who laughed more, the kids or me.
Performed by Richard Medrington and Rick Conte of Puppet State Theatre Company of Scotland, the hourlong show for children 7 and up is an adaptation of a French allegory by Jean Giono about a shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier, who (with his scene-stealing dog) plants trees that transform a Provencal wasteland into a lush forest.
Before getting into Giono's tale (published in 1953, it was made into an animated short film that won an Oscar), the play begins with a droll exchange between Medrington and the button-eyed dog puppet operated by Conte. "I never get to talk to that guy who's behind me," the dog puppet with an identity crisis says. Their shtick is not only hilarious (with a weakness for bad puns, inside theater jokes and making fun of French) but it also does a nice job of introducing the witty actors and the concept of their imaginative performance.
Medrington and Conte tell Giono's heartwarming story in such a manner that they never speak down to the young audience members or go over their heads. Medrington plays the narrator who came across Bouffier ("the wisest, happiest person I ever met") on a hiking tour and revisits him and the flourishing forest through almost 40 years of war-torn European history. The shepherd's dog is a constant stick-retrieving, tail-wagging, wise-cracking presence. The simple production does more with less, featuring the ingenious use of lavender scent and a water spray bottle, to a soundtrack of charming French pop music.
The Man Who Planted Trees is in the middle of a tour of the United States and Canada. It is being performed this week for school field trips through the education programs of Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Mahaffey Theater (which is presenting the show at St. Petersburg Little Theatre) and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. There are also public performances today at Ruth Eckerd and Wednesday at St. Petersburg Little Theatre. Theatergoers of all ages who attend are in for a treat.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.