Review: How to Build a Forest

A performance installation explores the difference between nature and fabrication.

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INTO THE WOODS Performer-builders create a man-made nature zone.

INTO THE WOODS Performer-builders create a man-made nature zone. Photograph: Timothy Atticus

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

The two parts of How to Build a Forest, playwright Lisa D'Amour, performer Katie Pearl and visual artist Shawn Hall's collectively created installation, are wildly—and intentionally—out of balance. The first is the indoor fabric "forest" rising slowly (and then being dismantled just as slowly) over eight hours daily at the Kitchen. A team of rangers, all dressed in pale blue coveralls, flit through the dappled space, tending the creation. Their husbandry takes a variety of forms. The arborists are as much priests as gardeners, so while they tug on pulleys, raise columns of fabric to the ceiling and thread neckties onto metal armatures to make waist-high grasses, they also pad stealthily up to visitors to hand us gnomic bits of paper ("Do Less," "Tree Time") and go up into the seating risers for brief bouts of strange murmuring ("I think it's made with real cheese").

Meanwhile, we have our own job to do. We too wander in the purple-and-orange wood, but we have been instructed to consult a source guide that tells us how the brightly colored, homemade environment was born. Weird lumpy boulders covered in fringed rugs turn out to be repurposed exercise balls; the stumps have rings because they were originally vinyl records. The New Orleans--based team, clearly still in mourning for their gulf, makes sure we know that nearly everything in this kindergarten Arden is made primarily of oil.

The second part of the installation is a self-guided tour, which takes the viewer out of the Kitchen and into the High Line park above. Leaving the sepulchral gloom of the construction (Christopher DeLaurenti and Brendan Connelly's sound design of crunching, sighing, amplified organic noises adds to the prayerful atmosphere) feels like an escape. Our tour brochure asks us to contemplate sources and origins, informs us of the functions of the buildings around us, and sends us down the lovely corridor of plantings and people watching. And then it tells us to go back.

The disconnect is painful. Going back down off that bright, busy walkway, with its real flowers and cityscape majesties, seems almost impossible. The forest in the Kitchen, we know, is full of many things: scrupulous artists, meticulously constructed objects, reverential quiet, a charmingly written but rather bossy set of instructions about what to ponder. But for me, at least, the pull of the High Line proved stronger. I admired the work ethic of the elves below; I was grateful for the seriousness of their endeavor. But they had done their jobs too well—now I had a real out-of-doors to muse in, no polyester one could possibly suffice.

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The Kitchen. Created by Lisa D'amour, Katie Pearl and Shawn Hall.

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