The house lights in the Nancy Power Theatre dim as on-stage cellist Morag Northey begins playing. A young Agnes Martin (Emma Ryan) drifts on to the stage, takes a seat, and begins reading. This picturesque moment is quickly interrupted by an older version of Martin (Maralyn Ryan), who bursts onto the stage and begins a humorous meta-commentary on “not deviating from the script.” And so begins The Innocence of Trees, Theatre Network’s opener for their 48th Mainstage season.
In this 90-minute one act the audience follows Canadian artist Agnes Martin through time and space as her art career takes her from rural Saskatchewan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We learn about Martin’s tense relationship with her mother, who often locked her outside their farmhouse, and the process behind her famous grid-based art pieces.
But this show isn’t just a straight-forward recounting of Martin’s life. Instead it’s a journey through the psyche of an artist, a mediation on the nature of beauty and innocence, and a narrative about the quest for happiness. Stickland’s script really shines in these contemplative moments, allowing the audience to dwell on these larger philosophical questions. Maralyn Ryan’s multilayered and moving performance as the elder Martin acts as a perfect compliment to Stickland’s beautiful script, as she seamlessly toes the line between humour and tragedy. Additionally, Emma Ryan’s portrayal of a younger version of Martin is exquisitely done, painting a recognizable portrait of a young girl waiting for her life to begin.
Sound designers Darrin Hagen and previously mentioned cellist Morag Northey deserve special mention for their stunning layering of sound. By using music, off-stage voices, and on-stage actors, Hagen and Northey create a soundscape that is sometimes sparse and sometimes cacophonous, further enhancing the audience’s journey into Martin’s mind. Additionally, Ian Jackson transports audiences to the Saskatchewan countryside and the streets of New York through projected images.
Ultimately, through moving performances, arresting visuals, and an impactful sonic landscape, this team of artists recovers the often neglected story of Agnes Martin with grace, complexity, and beauty. The result? A show that cannot be missed.
The Innocence of Trees is on at the Roxy until December 11th. The show is being presented alongside a visual art and multimedia exhibit reflecting on Martin’s life, so make sure to stick around after the show to explore these works.