By Peter Foy
Vivian Nesbitt’s one‑woman show, “The Bark and the Tree,” won the award for Best Documentary Play when it premiered at United Solo back in 2013. Six years later, the play is still something to marvel at, thanks to Ms. Nesbitt’s deft delivery and its pertinent themes. “The Bark and the Tree” finds its most transgressive quality, however, in how even though it’s a very personal affair on Ms. Nesbitt’s part, it’s also highly universal.
In the hour‑long play, Ms. Nesbitt recalls a time in her life when she sought to learn more about her famous ancestor, Eva Mary Kelly O’Doherty. Eva was renowned in Ireland during the 1800s for being both a patriot and a prolific poet, with several of her works (including her first published poem) appearing in the notable Irish nationalist newspaper, The Nation. She fell in love with an Irish revolutionary, Kevin Izod O’Doherty, who was arrested for writing allegedly anti‑government pieces and spent seven years in a penal colony. Eva would have to wait ten years to be reunited with Kevin, whereupon they finally wed.
Clearly, Eva’s life story is rich enough to carry its own piece, but what makes “The Bark and the Tree” most alluring is that it’s seen through the perspective of Eva’s descendant. Vivian was fascinated that her ancestor waited so long for her love, and ultimately gave up writing poetry (she signed her poems with the pseudonym, “Eva of the Nation”). Saving up her money, Vivian traveled to Ireland, where she visited a bed and breakfast that claimed to be Eva’s onetime home. From here, “The Bark and the Tree” truly brings audiences into its whimsical take on heritage.
Ms. Nesbitt has had a decades‑long career in both theater and television, and this piece serves as a culmination of the myriad roles she’s performed. She plays numerous characters in “The Bark and the Tree” (and adopts an Irish accent and dialect for several). The play is a bit of a juggling act on her part, but she’s fully successful. Her transitions between characters are seamless, which is certainly hard to do given that the play contains minimal wardrobe changes. Her transformations feel so natural that there’s nothing to bat an eyelash at.
As much as Ms. Nesbitt carries the play, the stage crew does ample work to realize her vision. Strategic lighting heightens the gravity of certain monologues, and conjures a mood (the play won the award for Best Lighting at United Solo, as well). While props are scarce, the few that are present (a table, a few books, a chair, an opal stone, a carrying case, and a dress) find their place in the narrative, and aid with the historical themes. The play also makes effective use of music, with, of course, Irish folk songs being a focus. Near the play’s finale, when Ms. Nesbitt recites the lyrics, “You are the Light, I am the Shade,” the play’s ethos becomes clear. Ultimately, Vivian’s dissection of Eva’s life and times allows her to connect more with her own, both as an artist and as a woman. The play ends on a note that speaks of patience, suggesting that her comprehension may be just beginning.
It may be a slight misnomer to call “The Bark and the Tree” a documentary play. Sure, it reiterates facts and asks its audience to consider its story reality. Still, with its presentation, careful plotting and aural atmosphere, the play is art. For that reason, “The Bark and The Tree” is one of the most singular shows at this year’s United Solo.
“The Bark and the Tree”
Written and Performed by Vivian Nesbitt
September 20th at 7:30 PM
Photo Credit: Antonia Molleur
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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PETER FOY is a writer, journalist, and avid culture-vulture currently residing in Queens, New York. He likes to find the right amount of joy and darkness in his everyday life, not unlike his stories, and putting his observational and encyclopedic qualities to good use for the chaotic age we’re in.