The Tallest Tree in the Forest: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Here's a riddle: How can a solo show that's written poorly, performed unimaginatively and staged woodenly still be moving? Daniel Beaty's bioplay The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a by-the-numbers trundle through the great Paul Robeson's astonishing career, manages to both pose the puzzle and answer it. Part of the show's secret lies in its subject and our gratitude at learning more about him; the rest is in its frequent flights into song, when Beaty booms out spirituals, show tunes and once, heartbreakingly, a Yiddish anthem from the Warsaw ghetto. Clouds of portentousness hang heavy over Moisés Kaufman's production but facts, luckily, carry their own electric charge. And despite the show's clockwork pace (we tick through events with the dry rhythm of a Wikipedia entry), in its musical moments, Tallest Tree does call down lightning.
Robeson was a brilliant man, but his gift was his voice: He earned money for Columbia Law School by giving performances; then, after leaving the law, he rocketed to stardom on the stage. To forcibly remind us of Robeson's most famous cultural moment, Beaty opens by singing a rafter-shaking version of “Ol' Man River,” then pausing for our applause. (There are many such pauses; the audience responds on cue.) Over the next two hours we learn about Robeson's marriage, his passionate political fights, his persecution by both HUAC and the FBI, and (not unrelated) his love for the Soviet Union, where he felt society was free of racial prejudice.
Because that incredible voice carried across continents, the character Beaty plays, a Robeson looking back at his long life, feels his burden keenly. “What,” he wonders, “do you have the responsibility to say?” This would be an interesting question to ponder were we not being hurried from event to event, skating past the troubling details of Robeson's life and moving, pointedly, toward the most hagiographic interpretations. It might be nice to spend our two hours thinking more carefully about any one of Robeson's contradictions. For instance, what does it mean to write an ode to Stalin? And to write it after you learn he was killing your friends?
As with Robeson, Beaty's gift is his voice, a rumbling baritone that recaptures interest after his schematic writing frightens it away. He does not, though, have a gift for mimicry. An earlier version of the show, one semi-legendarily performed at the Yale Cabaret, involved two performers, and you yearn for someone else to play the storm of lightly sketched secondary characters. (Beaty fluting his lines as Essie, Robeson's steel-willed wife, verges on dreadful.) You also wish for a more stripped-down production; set designer Derek McLane has given us 13 old-timey microphones, a lectern, two bookcases, a gaggle of chairs and a whole flock of massive lighting instruments. It's a clutter that reflects the show's own overstuffed quality, a handy visual aid for how more can sometimes be less.
Still, against its own odds, the piece does deliver occasional thrills. They are usually simple ones, for instance, vicarious excitement as Robeson tells the House Un-American Activities Committee that it's a bunch of fascists. The audience shouts, excited to spot an easy target. The music, though, is material that earns every shiver, every cheer. Backed by cello, clarinet and piano, Beaty bellows out songs, sometimes eliding syllables until the words are a rich, tidal mass of sound. You can sense its roots sinking deep into the soil underneath the BAM Harvey; you can feel Beaty stretching onstage. The rest of the show seems small by comparison, but the music itself knows how to grow tall, and that may be reason enough to enter the forest.—Helen Shaw
BAM Harvey Theater (see Off Broadway). Written and performed by Daniel Beaty. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.