How Does Your Garden Grow?
In Eden, there are wildflowers everywhere. Dewy and fresh. Swaying in the wind. White and pink mostly, layered on each other like crinolines, or particularly dense meringues. And at their center, an equally dewy new man, with a mush of a mind and hesitant approach to the world around him.
At least, that’s par for the course in The Apple Tree, on at the Yale Cabaret through Saturday night. Directed by Cab veteran Rory Pelsue, the work is a musical retelling of the creation story, handing the reins back to Eve while making mellifluous original sin. After opening Thursday night, the play has performances Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m.
First performed at New York’s Shubert Theatre in 1966, The Apple Tree comes from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick—the same team that brought audiences Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. In its original format, it runs as three interconnected one-act musicals, all relating back to the fall of man, and ensuing banishment from the Garden of Eden.
In Pelsue’s able hands, the Cab’s audience sees only act one, the first and most freestanding of the three. As the play opens, Adam (Cab debut Danilo Gambini) lies half-asleep, awaiting instructions for his soft, neophyte self. It does not take long to see that he is, to repurpose one of his lines, kind of a human clod. He’s not super smart, quick to anger, hyper-anxious, and insistent on his myriad truths, many of which have no basis in reality.
Thank God—literally—for Eve (Courtney Jamison), who comes straight from Adam’s rib with infectious enthusiasm, ready to take on the world with her big smile and bigger voice. She’s smart and intuitive, a far cry from the Eve we were taught in Sunday school classes. No longer is the search for knowledge and pursuit of pleasure tantamount to evil: it’s just how Eve rolls. Don’t try to stop her from getting near the apple tree—she’ll do what she wants, and then she’ll probably make you do what she wants too.
What follows is a witty, unexpected, and delightful work in a month that has felt like the end of days. Pelsue has never not stuck a landing at the Cab, and this show—his first musical, and first true comedy—is no exception. From a black and white pre-show flicker of The Judy Garland Show (an episode in which Lena Horne guest stars, and sings gloriously with Garland), we are situated in this new Eden, a old garden embellished with new tricks.
Perhaps some things will always remain the same. Mortal creatures still need to be named, Adam and Eve still aren’t aware of their nakedness (until they are), and a seductive, glistening serpent (read: penis, because it is always really a penis) still makes his way through the high grass.
But this version, unstuck in time, is a lot more fun. Against a relatively spare set, Pelsue’s The Apple Tree imagines an Eden where Eve is right most of the time, and banishment from the garden is more of an inevitability than a punishment. It’s a nuanced but noticeable shift in perception, liberating the creation story while keeping it silly, like the whole thing is hopped up on helium. That the show opens over Rosh Hashanah feels both funny and fitting too, as if the Cab is saying yes, this is definitely the first show to see of the New Year.
As Eve, third year Jamison is a stunner. A bubbly, near-euphoric demeanor fits the character, as do vocals that are right on pitch, and right on time. She is so loveably intrepid, pointing to the things around her with a compulsion to do more, faster, better. Incredibly funny, too, delivering lines from a red-lipped mouth with wide, dimply smiles and quizzical head bobs and glances. Even as she lets Eden’s resident serpent (a magic Erron Crawford) into her headspace, she remains endearing in her agency, flipping a narrative that has so frequently shortchanged her.
Gambini draws big laughs as Adam, working the stage as though he is sometimes moving through molasses. He gives the character the ultimate complexity it needs, playing up not just his soft spots and innate dad humor but the immense ineptitude, serial anxiety, and defiance that come with being a man. Not any man, but the first man, and the first straight man. In song and in speech, he ultimately redeems himself: a soul wandering in this world, with one companion, looking for answers. Not too different from the audience that stares back at him.
It is a show of quiet victories, placing forbidden fruit and bad jokes on the same level for wondrous results. In a compelling move for costume design, Matthew Malone has dressed Adam and Eve in all-white country club-esque garb to represent their nakedness, which is to say their lack of knowledge. Their brains, like the bodies they inhabit, are initially blank slates. Everything is the pristine white of milk, almost asking to be stained. Crawford, meanwhile, is dressed as a cross between his triumphant Cleopatra of the summer, a 70s game show host and Walt Clyde Frazier left alone at a disco party.
As Adam and Eve gain knowledge, red blooms around them: first as accessories, then garments, then household items. By the end of the show, everything is soaked in red: the apples, the clothes, the watering can with which Adam learns to tend plants. Lights flicker in yellow and red above, everything vibrant as their world becomes de-sanitized. Along the way are weighty lessons in love, touch, sex, parenthood and aging that sneak up on the audience, hilarious until they're suddenly heart-rending instead.
We end there, much better people for it. The Apple Tree isn’t not a groundbreaking show like last week’s One Big Breath, or even Pelsue’s sublime Mies Julie earlier this year. It doesn’t pretend to be. Instead, this Adam and Eve have learned the lessons our teachers never dared to teach us. They have seen the world in technicolor, and aren’t going to go back. We shouldn’t either.
The Apple Tree is playing at the Yale Cabaret from now through Saturday, with nightly performances at 8 and 11 p.m. For more show and ticket information, visit the Cab’s website or check it out on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.