One popular poplar

Dec 6, 2006 at 12:00 am

Judge Gwendolyn Gage (Patsy Hudson) has issues with her daughter's romantic choices. Her oldest daughter, Lilly (Leah Smith), wants to marry a Republican, and the younger one, Laurel (Imani Turner) is a tree hugger, literally. Laurel is infatuated with the massive poplar that shades the alley behind their big city brownstone, showing some freaky affection that the little boy in The Giving Tree never gave to his bark-covered companion. Of course, her love is unrequited. It's a tree, after all.

The tree is actually a symbol or a muddled metaphor of some kind, though it's never easy to tell. In fact, it's hard to tell exactly what Jacob M. Appel's sometimes funny but often cloying script is trying to say, though you might be amused enough to stick around and figure it out. The self-described "sappy satire" Arborphilia (Tree Love), directed by Bruce E. Millan, is about all the strange ways love grows between people. The play makes its off-off-Broadway world premiere in the city's venerable Detroit Repertory Theater.

The "Rep," open since 1957, is a quaint space with a cozy little stage, every inch of which is filled up by a clever set design in this production, with swaying branches and background skyscrapers that reconfigure depending on the setting. Those buildings get a bit of a workout — the cast is constantly bustling their way through one goofy setup after another in a comic style just slightly tamer than slapstick. It's safe to say that Appel prefers broad strokes to delicate touches. His search-and-destroy approach to political spoofing won't win him friends at GOP tea parties either, though he might get invited to a university kegger or two.

In the play, the right wing takes it on the chin with Lilly's fiance — Fairmont (Joe Colosi) is a status-conscious conservative. His deliciously wicked boss, Dame Lucreita Bankmoore, is played by Henrietta Hermelin with all the warmth of Leona Helmsley and all the subtlety of Lady Elaine from the Land of Make Believe. (Hermelin can be forgiven for chewing the scenery since her character is so hilariously over the top.) She's got an evil plan to chop down the tree and replace it with rock quarry. The actress gets such juicy lines as "children should be melted down for energy." Just as amusing (though maybe not intentionally) is hippie garden shop owner Jimmy Duckfoot, who has a crush on Laurel, and is played by Michael Joseph with a ridiculous wig and a delivery that makes him sound like SNL's Ladies' Man. His scenes with Turner are as flat as the Kansas prairie, which is kind of amazing considering her tendency to alternate between shouts and whispers at a moment's notice. Fairing much better are the pair of Colosi and Smith, who display ample warmth and wit, though it helps that their forbidden left-wing/right-wing love affair is far more interesting than the loopy fantasia all around them.


Arborphilia runs 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Sundays through Dec. 30 at Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit; 313-868-1347.

Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]