The Syringa Tree returns to the Jungle Theater

The Syringa Tree
Sarah Agnew plays more than two dozen characters in "The Syringa Tree" at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis
Image courtesy of the Jungle Theater

Actor Sarah Agnew says she's been in stamina training for the last few months. She preparing to do a play: "The Syringa Tree." In it she portrays some 25 characters. The play tells the story of two women growing up in South Africa under apartheid.

The stage is bare, other than a swing hanging from an unseen tree on one side. There is just one actor, in a shapeless yellow dress. But she fills stage with a multitude of characters, telling a story that happened years ago in a faraway place.

The story starts with 6-year-old Lizzie. Her family is hiding the daughter of one of their black servants because the child doesn't have the right papers. Sometimes Lizzie is scared.

"Did the police come now?" Agnew gasps as Lizzie. "Are the police going to come and fetch Moliseng?"

"No, Elizabeth." Agnew's voice drops into that of Lizzie's father. "We won't let anyone take Moliseng. Moliseng will be safe here with us."

Director Joel Sass said "The Syringa Tree" is playwright Pamela Gien's autobiographical story about growing up in South Africa, and the long term impact of apartheid.

"It's really about mothers and daughters, memory, hope," Sass said.

"So it really is just like playing a really great game of ping-pong, only with yourself."

It's a deceptively simple story, told in a deceptively simple way. After all Sass points out it's just one actor, moving in space. But for Sass, getting the right actor was the first, and perhaps most important step.

"Knowing that I would be working with Sarah on this was both very exciting and reassuring," he said.

Playing dozens of characters is no easy task, even for someone as experienced as Sarah Agnew.

Agnew has been a regular at Jeune Lune, the Guthrie and other theaters in recent years. She said they carefully examined each of the roles, which range from the central character, a 6-year-old white girl called Lizzie, to a 90-year-old Bantu man.

"We found that every scene has a different set of rules for it in terms of where your focus is and the dynamic of it, and what you can get away with," Agnew said.

Joel Sass
Joel Sass is directing "The Syringa Tree"
Image courtesy of the Jungle Theater

She also had to learn how act with herself. There are moments when she slips between characters, adding years to her age, or even switching gender by just turning her head, or slumping her shoulders.

"So it really is just like playing a really great game of ping-pong, only with yourself." she said.

Agnew's challenge is to create an entire sensory world; and she does it.

Agnew and Sass first presented "The Syringa Tree" at the Jungle Theater last year. She was surprised at the number of South Africans who had lived through the time who came to the show.

"People that had been there said they really felt like it smelled like what they remembered and the light was what they remembered, and they could almost feel the heat," Agnew said. "And I thought that was really fantastic."

Sarah Agnew
Sarah Agnew has performed at many Minnesota Theaters. She says she had to keep reminding herself that as she turned to speak to another character in "The Syringa Tree" that she WAS that other character too
Image courtesy the Jungle Theater

The play was a huge success, which caused a problem. As a result of word of mouth, and people returning to see the show several times, demand for tickets kept rising. Finally, the Jungle was forced to close the show to make way for the next scheduled production.

Now, the Jungle is bringing back "The Syringa Tree."

Pioneer Press Theater critic Dominic Papatola loved the show the first time round. Now, he said it faces a particular challenge. He said a theater doesn't want to mess with a successful production. However, he remembers something Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke once told him.

"He said, 'The thing about revivals is it's not enough for it to be as good as it was the last time we staged it, it has to be as good as people remembered it was,'" Papatola said.

As a result, Papatola said the show has to be just half a step better.

Director Joel Sass said this time round they are already familiar with the text and they are finding more in it.

"So many of the characters have developed these unique kind of sub-basements or attics of complexity, or secrets, or more uniquely expressed thoughts for line readings which are making the journey through the story even richer," he said.

Re-climbing "The Syringa Tree" was something not taken lightly by Sarah Agnew.

"I'm intimidated by it still, which I think is good," she said. "I think that's right."

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