A while ago I wrote a prologue for a show conceived by two friends in which I stated that there is a fine line between post-postmodern brilliance and crap. Though I was being facetious, there is some truth to this sentiment. I understand that a lot of people who see experimental theatre sometimes find it hard to assess the value of a show that requires a different vocabulary, one that might not breed immediate understanding. I have a seen a great many shows that I enjoyed but did not entirely "get," though each of those experiences left me pondering questions that extended the notions of the play beyond the boundaries of theatrical space and out into the world.
You might wonder why I am beginning with all of this, but I feel it necessary to set the groundwork for this review with this in mind, as Jim Findlay's Botanica was not this kind of show for me, though I believe it intended to be. No matter what some people think of reviewers, I do not personally enjoy giving a show a negative review. I am more interested in teasing out why this show did not work for me than I am in simply stating what was "wrong" with it.
It started out well. The space at 3LD is alive with plants and technology in a way that is visually exciting. The shadows of actors moving about behind screens upstage provided some ambient movement as the audience got settled. The ticket -- a leaf -- and the audience's entrance -- through a greenhouse-like space surrounded with plants and lights all set me up for an imaginative exploration of plant-consciousness.
Yet Botanica did not complete this mission. Whereas oftentimes I am able to praise a good script despite the misdirection of actors, or conversely the strong acting despite a mediocre script, this play suffers from both of these ailments simultaneously. The concept of scientists discovering that plants can communicate with us has promise, but the play instead devolves into a sort of male fantasy of plant sex.
Yes, I said plant sex. Which I am all for in theory! I would be thrilled if someone made a clever play about plant and human relationships around this theme, which I could see being an excellent sardonic statement about a great many themes. But when this theme is thrown in as an odd tangent to a play in which it is not crucial to the plot, I'm not a fan. Also, when said plant sex showcases a blatant form of naturalized misogynism, I am left even more perplexed. Let me explain: the plants are female, and they really want the male humans to do things to them.
This was a perfect opportunity to do something creative, but instead Jim Findlay does nothing but reproduce a fetishized female sexuality... in a plant. This is not helped by the fact that actor Chet Mazur, the plant lover, has a great deal of trouble with his lines, and does not supply any motivation for these actions. As the female plants are being "tended," human female Liz Sargent repeatedly strips her clothes (while human male Ilan Bachrach does not) in spore-induced-madness. I don't mean to sound like an angry feminist, but this show is a perfect example of why Young Jean Lee's UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW is necessary.
Even with this discomfort at Botanica's ideology, I was still ready to say that it is a good show for (platonic) plant lovers, yet I found myself more disturbed at how many plants are destroyed on stage. The final stage picture is a graveyard of these living props, which brings up a lot of questions for me. Again, if this destruction was intended to highlight a specific cultural issue, or disregard of an issue, I would understand. But, like so much else in this show, it is simply not mentioned.
This is not to say that introducing something without explanation is immediate grounds for negative judgement. There are a lot of references to The Wooster Group, who often use seemingly unrelated techniques and props in their shows, in Jim Findlay's bio and related press clippings, and I think that they could possibly have made this show into something. The Wooster Group is full of actors whose total commitment to any action, however nonsensical, endows it with some overall meaning. This lack of commitment in Botanica is mirrored by my own: as I see that the playwright, director, and actors are not invested in any particular goal, I am not engaged on an intellectual or emotional level.
I go into every show hoping that I am going to see something clever and powerful, and whenever I am disappointed, I feel that way for all involved. I know that theatre is hard to do, and it is my honest intention as a reviewer to point out shortcomings now, so that everyone can learn for the future. With this in mind, I wish all of the artistic team the best of luck in their future pursuits.