A Radical Tenderness: Corinne Donly’s Wood Calls Out to Wood

Connor James Sheridan as Grapehead and Tanyamaria as A Lover in Wood Calls Out to Wood. Photo by Sasha Arutunova.

Corinne Donly’s Wood Calls Out to Wood—directed by Sarah Hughes and running through November 12 at the Tank—adapts Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a hinged triptych painted around the year 1500 in oil on three oak panels.

The Prima materia of Bosch’s painting is a tree. The Prima Materia of Donly’s production is the dapper, gray-clad, and bespectacled Lucy Kaminsky, who greets audiences in the lobby before the show. Since her felling in 1460, the Prima Materia explains, she has undergone many transformations, and some parts of her have been lost. What remains is wood—and words.

As the Prima Materia opens her panes to us, we enter the theater, the painting, and the play. What follows is a strange and gorgeous narrative of loving tension, attentive to the subtle give and tug of people trying to be kind to one another and also ethical in their interpretations of the landscape they live in.

The central storyline is drawn from the painting’s central panel, which shows a prelapsarian paradise, free of shame. Grapehead (Connor James Sheridan) and A Lover (Tanyamaria) fall in love. There’s a sense of loss for Grapehead, who loses sight of the landscape because he can see only A Lover’s face. Later, tensions arise over the question of how to interpret the landscape, which only A Lover can now see in order to read it. In a different kind of play, the stirrings of disagreement between the lovers might tend toward an irremediable breach, but in Donly’s theater of gentleness and Bosch’s garden of delight, we are granted a vision of the world in which disagreement is not the harbinger of the end of love but the engine of love’s continuance.

That act of interpretation is of particular importance in this world because language is material—it matters and is matter, with no gap between the word and what it names. Language itself is unfallen in Donly’s flying, freewheeling celebration of the sounds of words, their meanings, their multiplicities, and the way in combination they alchemize into something new altogether. When, amid a vibrant, vibrating riot of pun and onomatopoeia, Grapehead and A Lover come at last to kiss, their lips don’t touch—they kiss by saying “kiss.”

Blazingly sexy, the scene shimmers with new love, with the sensuousness of mingled words and tangled breath. Maybe it’s the sense we get of love’s fragility—for when we understand words as real, concrete, and material—as love itself—we understand also their potential to wound. Or maybe it’s the way we, the audience, share so intimately in their love. We can “be hearing with” Grapehead and A Lover as they “kiss kiss mmm kiss” as we couldn’t be touching with.

And just as Donly’s language attends, through pun and playfulness, to the materiality of language, Hughes’s production invites audiences to engage with the structure of the theater itself. We enter through the back of the stage and stand gazing into a house hung with swaths of colored fabric. We take our seats amidst the color before seeing at last the glimmering stage, newly aware of the odd architecture of the space and language we’ve gathered in.

This attention to structure helps prepare us for the play’s major event—the closing of the painting’s two side panels—an environmental crisis that the characters experience as darkness and an epiphany. The closing of the panels “is a world-changing event for the characters,” because, as Donly notes in this awesome interview with playwright Jerry Lieblich, “a character on the rightmost panel is brought into contact with a character in the center panel, and suddenly their worldview is radically shifted.”

In the lovely workshop production at the Public this summer, the closing of the panels—the fall from Eden—resonated for me primarily as a metaphor for a world in the midst of environmental disaster. In the darkness, a Horse (Will Dagger) from the central panel comes face to face with a Unicorn from the far left (Claire Fort) and, recognizing in the Unicorn some version of his former self, echoes the question voiced first by the Prima Materia. What part of me is missing? What, in the course of evolution, have I lost?

Letting this question echo in the mouths of both tree and horse, plant and animal, Donly suggests that the feeling of being unsettled in the body may bring us together. Nostalgic for our lost vestiges, we can feel, through that loss, a union with the natural world. Our own experience of bodily discomfort and unease can give us empathy for the natural world that we have nearly annihilated. It is, I think, a hopeful notion, that by virtue of that empathy, the Earth might yet be saved.

In Hughes’ production, this moment also resonates with the current political crises. The characters in Donly’s play must reckon with the consequences of living in a painting that is meant to close itself off. And as surely as our country’s legal and economic systems are surfaces painted with visions of an American Eden or Dream, they are also the racist, sexist, classist technologies by which those dreams can be denied.

In a shared darkness, in which the painting’s coasts and center come face to face, perhaps worldviews can shift. Crisis, when it comes, may be an opportunity for dialogue, disagreement, and change. Even now, Donly suggests, there may be a way of living in radical tenderness that will spell a way forward rather than the end of it all.

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