High art, grim lives shaded in ambitious Tree City

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Three Brothers: The Kane brother of Dennis Kim’s Tree City Legends are (from left) Sean San Jose as Denizen, Taiyo Na as Min and Juan Amador as Sum. Below: San Jose’s Denizen recalls a troubled childhood. Photos by Pak Han

Tree City Legends leaves you moved and somewhat perplexed. My experience with Dennis Kim’s play as directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph was equal parts fascination and confusion.

There are so many creative partners on this project, it’s no wonder the thing feels not only like an art installation but also like an entire museum unto itself. You walk through an art gallery in Intersection for the Arts’ new digs in the San Francisco Chronicle building, and then when you get to the performance space (which usually houses Intersection’s administrative offices), you walk through another art space, this one tied to the play, a sort of homage to the departed.

The performance space itself has chairs all facing the same direction, but that’s where the traditional component ends. There are video projections (by Joan Osato) on the walls and windows of Tanya Orellana’s set, which also includes performance platforms in front of the chairs, and to the left and to the right. Actors walk (and run) through the center of the audience many times in the play’s 95 minutes, and behind a scrim at the front of the space, is a band.

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The band is headed by Kim himself playing Junie Kane, the deceased elder brother of four Kane boys. Playing with Kane from beyond the grave are Dirty Boots, the dynamic musical duo of James Dumlao and Rachel Lastimosa.

So you have art, video, performance and music. You certainly can’t fault the creative team for lack of imagination or multimedia ability. But between Intersection, resident theater company Campo Santo, Joseph’s Living Word Project and its Youth Speaks theater company and ICTUS, a group that integrates photography, film, visual arts and new media into its projects, you can fault the team for failing to harness the power of all that in the telling of a compelling story.

Individually, these elements all have a certain power, but the whole is not more than the sum of its parts.

There are two things that work unequivocally. First, the performances by Sean San Jose, Juan Amador (aka Wonway Posibul) and Taiyo Na as the Kane brothers mourning the suicide of their brother Junie are electrifying. They don’t interact much, but each of their mammoth monologues have some extraordinary moments. There’s anger, poetry, lyricism, violence and deep pain in these young men, and their voices are distinctive and extraordinary.

The other great element is the wonderfully appealing music by Kim – jazzy and hip and full of feeling. If this evening unfolded in a black box, no frills at all, and only featured the actors and the band, it would probably be more powerful than what we have here with all the multimedia bells and whistles. Story is most powerful when it dictates form. This Tree seems to have grown in the opposite direction. Though rooted in powerful storytelling, it branches out into high art and loses focus.


Dennis Kim’s Tree City Legends continues through March 4 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 415-626-2787 or visit www.theintersection.org.

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