No family is superior to the Jenkins-Laurences in the production “Branched: A Comedy with Consequences.” They eat a strict Paleo diet, dress meticulously, speak in positive affirmations and even have nightly educational events in their living room, such as violin concerts performed by their only child, Benjamin (Michelle David).
Tamara (Tara Westwood) is the vehement matriarch, who shamelessly quotes from the series of self-empowerment books she has written. Tamara is adamant about making sure her family lives a “natural” life, so she schedules family affirmations and lap time, where each family member sits on the others’ laps.
Next on the agenda, her husband Martin (Andrew Blair) rubs her neck and whispers encouragements about their family’s superiority as their five-year-old son fondles her breasts. If this sounds like a far cry from the natural, it is — that is what this play is fighting to prove. The audience is forced to ask whether hyper-attentive and overbearing parenting methods are healthy for any family.
The story of “Branched” unfolds from the birth of a new baby, some sort of bizarrely inhuman child-tree creature, that highlights the weirdness of their extreme natural lifestyle. It seems as though Tamara is so obsessed with living naturally that the humanity is wrung out of her family’s lives.
As the story progresses, Martin has an affair with Benjamin’s teacher, Belinda (Marguerite Stimpson). Benjamin eventually breaks down from the weight of his father’s secrets and it does not seem like “the power of the universe” or Tamara’s self-affirmations are making the slightest bit of difference.
The small cast successfully portrays their caricatured personas, most notably Westwood’s rendition of Tamara’s Amazonian personality, which contrasts neatly with the submissive kindergarten teacher Belinda. Unfortunately, the elementary educator turned rule-breaking adulteress wilts under the intensity of Tamara’s presence.
Martin’s excessively upbeat personality is on full blast while he is at home and disappears when he is with Belinda. Played with earnest high energy, Blair gives an enjoyable performance.
However, Benjamin, a child played by an adult woman, is a more difficult character to represent. Michelle David should be applauded for pulling out all the stops while attempting to embody a five-year-old boy, successfully adding a bit of humor to the play.
Overall, “Branched” forces the audience to ask interesting questions. Robert Ross Parker’s unique stage direction works well for the small playhouse, in which cast members are very aware that the audience can see what happens between scenes. The high kicking, lunging and prancing of the four actors as they move props around only adds to the experience.
The tree-baby situation is still a bit baffling, perhaps too over-the-top even for this all-natural themed production.
Violet Theatre Company’s production of “Branched: A Comedy With Consequences” is playing at HERE in SoHo, 145 Sixth Ave., through March 8.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 26 print edition. Tali Kuhel is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected]