The Syringa Tree: Strange Magic

Every morning, I get up all bleary and I pour my coffee and I sit down with my laptop and I tell my little stories. Character, plot, narrative, theme. I think I have a handle on these things. Most days, I feel competent.

Then I read or see something like The Syringa Tree, which is playing at the Jungle Theater until March 9, and everything I know about how to construct a story seems hopelessly naive.

Here’s the thing. I know beginning, middle, and end. I understand the journey, the epic, the Once Upon a Time. . . . and Happily Ever After motif.
What I do not get is how playwright Pamela Gien took shreds of dialogue
and monologue and memory and wove them all together into a sparkling web of a tale that spans 30 years and includes the politics of
apartheid, the complicated allegiances of a liberal white South African family, and
the shame that comes to those — both white and black — who feel
responsible for the vicious acts of their kind.

This is a one-woman show in which one actor (Sarah Agnew at the Jungle) plays 22 different characters — ranging from a six-year-old named Elizabeth Grace to a Catholic priest to Zephyr, a 60-year-old Zulu gardener — using nothing but the pitch of her voice, accents, facial expressions, and body language. She turns ever so slightly to one side, straightens her spine, and suddenly becomes someone else. Never do you wonder whether she is the child or the mother, the white doctor of the black maid. Agnew’s body is like liquid on the stage. She skips, weeps, cowers, and grieves. There is a world of people within this single small form.

Watch in particular for the scene that takes place in a car — which does
not, of course, actually exist. There are three people in the invisible
vehicle: Elizabeth, her mother, Eugenie, and a driver. And Agnew moves
in a continuous circle playing them all, carrying on a conversation
with herself, until you could swear there actually are three people on
the stage.

No less is this alchemy present in the set. There is only a bare stage with a large swing hanging from the rafters, a backdrop cracked with sky-colored hues: pink, yellow, and blue for daytime; gold and green for dusk; shadows with slats of light. A man is beaten, a little girl watches in fear. It all happens before your eyes though of course, there is nothing there, really. Somehow, this amazing play makes you conjure the hat-sized blooming jacarandas and sly Rhodesian freedom fighters all on your own.

How is this done? I only wish I knew. I feel as if I need to get ahold of a copy of the play and shake it until the secret falls out.

Part of it must have to do with Joel Sass’s brilliant direction. It is worth noting that Sarah Agnew — who is luminous in this performance (or these performances, as the case may be) — also played Margaret in the Guthrie’s recent production of The Home Place. And though Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce singled her out as the "most satisfying" among a muddled cast, I, frankly, was hard pressed to see it. There, she faded. Here, in Syringa Tree, she is mesmerizing. But so too is the careful attention to movement, to her position on the stage, to the carefully choregraphed glances she casts to indicate action in another plane.

It is only partly coincidence that I followed this magnificent evening at the theater, a mere 90+ minutes that seemed to go by in half the time, with a South African pinotage.

In truth, I’ve always wanted to like South African wines. I like the idea of South African wines. But sadly, I’ve never tasted one that turned me on. Then, I found out there’s a Minneapolis company called Etica distibuting only Fair Trade winemakers — those that ensure workers are paid a livable wage, pay producers a premium for their products, adhere to eco-friendly methods, and re-invest in the local communities where there wine is made — and one of their top offerings right now is the 2006 Goue Vallei Pinotage.

Pinotage is the principal grape in South African winemaking. A combination of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, it has a distinctly dirty taste. I don’t mean earthy, peaty, or rich with soil. I mean old ashtray with a hint of green banana peel.

But after becoming entranced by The Syringa Tree, I figured I was in as hospitable a mood as possible. So I opened the Goue Vallei and gave it a try. Perhaps it was due to Gien’s work and the memory of Agnew on her swing, but I can safely say this is the best inexpensive Pinotage I recall. It is dirty, but not intensely so. There’s a robust layer of fruit, cherry with a whiff of something tropical, and a rutting goat-ish finish that lingers for quite a while.

I find it strange that this wine has no more in common with a French Pinot Noir than it does, say, with an egg salad sandwich. It’s not for refined sipping and it’s probably best drunk with plenty of sinewy dark meat, such as elk or deer. But it is — like the play — an interesting and entirely different experience. Plus, it’s probably the most humane and ecologically-responsible way to drink, right down to the bottle’s synthetic cork.

If you want to try a glass, it’s on the menu at Birchwood Cafe, The Sample Room, Via, and, of all places, Green Mill. For a complete list of local retailers carrying Etica wines, click here.

But here’s my advice: First, you should call The Jungle to reserve your tickets to Syringa Tree.