cARTel's 'Family Forest: An Immersive Experience' Merges Ancestry and Art

It has been our experience that collaboratively written theatre rarely works — competitive egos brush quality to the wayside leaving audiences with a performance that just does not mesh cohesively enough to be good. There are lots of these productions floating about the Los Angeles theatre scene at any given time, so you probably know exactly what we mean. That dreadful moment of realization when trapped mid-aisle in an inescapable, intermissionless play where the writers are too selfishly-subjective, self-indulgent, and self-serving to make their production accessible and enjoyable for the audience is just loathsome!

That particular sort of stage travesty happens a lot here, which is why we feel so very lucky to have caught Family Forest: An Immersive Experience at the Hayworth Theatre. Standing in blissfully consummate contrast to many other co-written works, this cARTel Collaborative Arts L.A. production is an exemplary illustration of how co-written group theatre should be.

Guided by a lanky, paternal narrator who sits at the base of a whimsical family tree, the Family Forest cast-creators take their audience through several generations of their own understated and endearing family stories. Through fluid reflection, oral histories are actively molded into beautifully crafted and highly varied vignettes steeped in tangible theatrical sepia. The ensemble (Negin Singh, Laura Cheek, Anna Schumacher, J. Steadman, Rachel Rosenbloom, Thomas Meston, Joshua Lamont, Amanda Wallace, Bethany Esfandiari, Laryn Stout, and BJ Allman) shares stories that have been deeded down to them though experience and tradition while simultaneously pulling viewers into an appreciable emotional vortex of human commonality. Regardless of whether the individual narratives are heart-warming, funny, sad, or taboo, the cast internalizes all of them holistically, invoking somber shared reverence for the long-gone but not forgotten moments that nourish their roots.

Family Forest is a performace, but it is also an experiential event that seeks to involve all of the senses. Prior to curtain the cast graciously welcomes audience members onto the stage to playfully ruminate on family tradition. The stage is initially set with rustic stations where you can taste family recipes, create your own family jewels, build a fantasy-style family tree, listen to stories, and smell jars filled with scents to remind you of grandma's house that a bartender occasionally dips into for ingredients.

When the actual performance starts, patrons are treated to aesthetic vignettes that vary wildly from one another, although most are cloaked in a bit of mystery and meaningful simplicity. The Family Forest scenes transport the audience to various time-places to catch a glimpse of ancestors and relations: in the vein of soft 1960s-style cautiously romantic Bollywood technicolor, we meet Indian great-grandparents on their wedding night; later we witness the slow deterioration of remembered details over generations of proud women; then we are transported to the deep South, rural Texas, and a whole bunch of darkly obscured Americana. Stories that melt into one another are told through movement, costume, song, art, clear, poetic dialogue, a little bit of American Sign Language, and snaps (you know, those combustible sperm-shaped firework things that pop when smashed). While we have absolutely no clue as to what they mean, our favorite scenes were the few that were purely conceptual. We loved seeing a literally liquored-up hiker blindly deal with sharp objects and watching also a creepy 15th century-era plague doctor arm-wrestle a sailor.

Under the direction of Singh and Sean Lewellyn, Family Forest strikes a perfect balance between the personal and the universal to craft scenes that the audience can deeply connect to despite their personal origins. The work is uniquely conceived, edgy, and skillfully actualized. The entire cast radiates tactful sensitivity to give knowing, meaningful performances. Finally the production is rounded out with excellent staging elements provided by the multi-talented cast like original music enviable costuming, fanciful set design, a living mural, and transformative lighting (by Noah Silverstein).

Family Forest: An Immersive Experience is playing at the Hayworth Theatre through July 8. Tickets are $10.50 and availble online.