“The Nature Crown” at the Guthrie Theater: Into the woods with Theatre Forever

“The Nature Crown” at the Guthrie Theater: Into the woods with Theatre Forever

“It’s new,” said Jon Ferguson as he greeted me last night at the door of the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio. “But then, it always is.”

That’s true: Ferguson isn’t a greatest-hits kind of guy. He likes to make new work, though what doesn’t change is the director’s particularly self-reflective brand of physical theater, with its perennial focus on themes of personal growth and self-knowledge—and an easy way with offhand humor that leavens the proceedings.

The Nature Crown, one of the most elaborate shows Ferguson’s produced in years, is a rich production built on a deeply layered allegory about memory and loss, about courage and fear, and about the meaning of maturity. It’s a little heavy, yeah, but it’s also charming and funny, suspended in Ferguson’s buoyant yet poignant alternate reality.

Created by Ferguson and his ensemble with text by Dominic Orlando, the play centers on João (Diogo Lopes). Jobless and wracked with urban ennui, he encounters a mysterious woman (Aimee K. Bryant) who encourages him to pursue a young boy (Lorenzo Reyes) into the woods. There, he finds a cute rural village full of quaint characters who may or may not be threatened by a monster who João may or may not have to slay.

As those may-or-may-nots indicate, it’s not always clear exactly what’s going on in The Nature Crown. Ferguson’s village is a busy place, and we meet not only its inhabitants but also a trio of spirits who control and embody the world around it (Bryant turns out to be Nature herself)—as well as a Rambler (Peter Lincoln Rusk) and his apprentice (Nick Saxton) who seem to have just checked out of The Grand Budapest Hotel. On top of all that, there’s an agitated character named Rupert (Tony Sarnicki) who jumps onstage and immediately dares the audience to cast him as a villain. Is he the town’s protector, or a threat—or both?

Eventually this all becomes more or less clear, but for much of The Nature Crown, it’s best to just roll with it—to enjoy the amusing and affecting characterizations by a uniformly strong cast that includes such indie-theater VIPs as Brant Miller, Adelin Phelps, Lauren Rae Anderson, and Allison Witham. Erica Zaffarano’s set is a sort of country-fair version of the Wurtele Thrust—complete with just as many trap doors—and Francisco Benavides’s props are endearingly rustic.

Then, there’s the music. Ferguson’s work has always been marked by an acute sensitivity to the importance of sound and music, and for The Nature Crown he’s pulled out all the stops; a nearly continuous original score is performed by co-composers Tim Cameron, Dan Dukich, Kalen Rainbow Keir, and Elizabeth Windnagel along with the ethereal six-member Artemis Chamber Choir. The expressive music is central to the effect of The Nature Crown, enveloping the entire production in an atmospheric soundscape that makes you almost want to cry before the actors even open their mouths.

Lopes is one of the co-directors of Transatlantic Love Affair, and Phelps and Witham are also among the stalwarts of that acclaimed physical theater company. It’s interesting to see these performers in a Ferguson production, where we’re warned up front that the narrative—an ironclad backbone of Transatlantic Love Affair’s storytelling—will be eccentric. What the companies have in common is an ability to create such confident ensemble performances that you’re swept into their onstage worlds.

Ferguson also brings what’s perhaps the most distinctive element of his work: an explicit self-reflectiveness about both the mundane and profound aspects of his brand of devised theater. Jokey fourth-wall breaking is commonplace—even at the Guthrie—but Ferguson has the courage to take the audience-performer relationship very seriously, to illuminate the fact that audience members are, in an important sense, co-creators themselves.

Ferguson’s best shows—notably You’re My Favorite Kind of Pretty and its sequel A Bun for a Door Handle—have openly been inspired by his own life, and The Nature Crown plays an interesting twist on that dynamic. Ferguson spent his childhood in England, and Lopes is from Portugal; their stories blur into one another, and ultimately into ours.

The Nature Crown does feel new, and could benefit from a more prolonged focus on the elements that come into sharp relief at its conclusion. João’s relationship with Veronica (Phelps), for example, could have been given a fuller treatment at the expense of some of the many fringe characters. (What if nature was just embodied by one actor, instead of three?) Rupert’s motivation is also confusing, and it remains unclear what his purpose is in a story that turns out to really be about João’s own inner life.

That said, The Nature Crown is easy to love, rough edges and all. Theater artists like to talk about how the act of imagination—of constructing an ineffable shared reality, if only for a couple of hours—is vital to the human experience, but few are able to demonstrate that as compellingly as Ferguson and his collaborators. The Nature Crown is an inspiring production; it also happens to be a lot of fun.

Jay Gabler