The creative team of Aaron Cromie, Mary Tuomanen, and Geneviève Perrier is enlightening and enchanting Fringe audiences with A PAPER GARDEN, a short and sweet historical fiction performed in the American Philosophical Society’s petite Jefferson Garden. The APS commissioned the work to complement its current exhibition, OF ELEPHANTS & ROSES: ENCOUNTERS WITH FRENCH NATURAL HISTORY 1790-1830, installed in its museum, across the street from the free plein-air performance.
Set in the last decades of the 18th-century, the original 35-minute story traverses time and continents, from the Ancien Régime of Louis XVI to Napoleonic France and post-Revolutionary America, through the travels and reminiscences of botanist/explorer extraordinaire André Michaux (Tuomanen), his sidekick/protégé Pierre-Paul Saunier (Cromie), and amateur/collector of flora and fauna, Josephine Bonaparte (Perrier).
As smart as they are talented, the bilingual creators/performers make jokes, make music, and make conversation in French and English (with faux French accents, of course!), mixing real people and facts with imaginative storytelling. The clever repartee includes references to the eponymous “Bahnjahmahn Frahnklahn” and the Franklinia tree from Philadelphia’s own Bartram’s Garden on the “Skweekle” river; the pleasant mock terror of Josephine’s first encounter with a Venus flytrap; and the long neck of a giraffe, which the giggling Empress finds “so silly!”
All of this, and more, is exhibited in the APS museum’s show of art, artifacts, specimens, and memorabilia from the period, documenting the exotica collected by the Museum of Natural History in Paris (established in 1793), and by the Empress Josephine for the pleasure gardens and menagerie of her Château de Malmaison (purchased in 1799), seven miles outside the city. In reality, Josephine spent a fortune on Malmaison, with a goal “to enrich the soils of France.” The revolutionary intent of the time is also expressed in the play by Michaux, who dreams of a “garden in the future, when all men will live under the trees of liberté and égalité”—the republican conceit that united America and France at the turn of the 19th century.
Along with the play and exhibition, the APS’s multidisciplinary project includes an incongruous post-modern GREENHOUSE AND CABINET OF FUTURE FOSSILS by 2010 Pew Fellow and award-winning architect Jenny Sabin, constructed in the midst of the Jefferson Garden, and giving form to Michaux’s “garden in the future” (in the words of the playwrights, “It’s a conceit!”). The theatrical costumes designed by K. Moriah Smith also deserve special mention, for capturing the era and visually describing the professions, personalities, and classes of the historic characters; especially lovely is the powder-blue Empire gown worn by Perrier as Josephine, who looks like she just stepped out of a Prud’hon portrait.
A PAPER GARDEN
Created and performed by Aaron Cromie, Mary Tuomanen, and Genevieve Perrier
Fridays-Sundays, September 2-17, 2011
Jefferson Garden of the American Philosophical Society
104 S. 5th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106