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‘The Arboretum Experience’ Review: Augmented Reality, IRL

A visitor uses their phone to plug into "The Arboretum Experience."
A visitor uses their phone to plug into "The Arboretum Experience." By Courtesy of Nikolai Alexander
By Jacob R. Jimenez, Crimson Staff Writer

If there were ever a way to capture the rejuvenating power of the Arnold Arboretum, a 281-acre wonderland just a few miles away from campus, the American Repertory Theater has done it. Throughout the fall, the A.R.T.’s “Arboretum Experience” will offer visitors free audio plays, meditation movements, and pop-up concerts to embellish the average walk in the park. It seems counterintuitive — to bring an audience outside to interact with nature, yet ask them to put on headphones. Still, whether intended as an immersion in nature or an augmented reality, “The Arboretum Experience” creates a captivating event worthy of revisiting.

When audiences walk through any of the Arboretum gates this fall, they’ll be greeted by a QR code linking them to a host of interactive media. Set in present times and acknowledging the realities of Covid-19, the stories center on the Arboretum itself. Whether visitors spend their time by the rose garden or climb Bussey Hill, the audio plays create an interactive experience with a custom “stage” as visitors choose where to walk on their journey. Although the concept is commendable and the voice acting convincing, the writing sometimes detracts from the magic. One particularly cringeworthy line in “Ramona the Fearless Goes for a Ride,” an audio play about a young girl’s adventure searching for lilacs, is: “Xavier’s the name, spreading smiles my game! Elbow bump hello now that we’ve met?” Maybe the cringe factor stems from the world’s dismissal of elbow bumps since Biden and Pence bumped weenuses back in 2020; maybe it stems from the obvious ploy to show A.R.T’s virus-precautious positionality. Regardless, the line is one of many that fails to land.

Despite unnecessary leaps in the writing, the plays were intriguing and impressive — especially knowing that only seven actors voiced the characters in all four plays, learning and performing their roles in the course of two weeks. A door slams, horns blast, birds chirp, and music interlays transitions. The sound effects immerse visitors in the world of the plays, and layered dialogue and interrupted lines capture the commotion of real conversation, creating a satisfying, textured listening experience.

But if the goal is to “experience” the Arboretum, what otherwise would be pros sometimes become cons. If a visitor is walking through trees, surrounded by singing birds, rustling leaves, and chirping insects, does putting on headphones to listen to an audio play full of artificial noise replace a more authentic experience?

The movement meditations help solve this theoretical conundrum. These brief audio files serve as a guide to mindful interactions between mind, tree, and self. Whether visitors choose to hug a tree, follow breathing techniques, or meditate on the plants, the movement meditations remind them to slow down and take time to align with the natural world. This critical aspect of the “Experience” legitimizes the concept of the piece as a whole, helping visitors refocus on the profundities of this special collection of trees.

To top off, the A.R.T. has invited musical and dance artists to perform amidst the trees every Saturday at 2 p.m. This feature alone is reason enough for a visit. Opening artists Kaovanny and Evelyn Bush kicked off the weekly performances on Sept. 4 with their R&B fusion style, playing a setlist of covers and original pieces. The entrance arch of the Bradley Rosaceous Collection neatly framed the singers. There are few moments rarer than sitting beneath a tree to listen to a guitar-accompanied rendition of 50 Cent’s “21 Questions,” but these are the kind of moments visitors can expect at the Arboretum throughout the fall. So head out of the city hustle and bustle for an “Arboretum Experience” and discover some magic moments of your own.

—Staff writer Jacob R. Jimenez can be reached at jacob.jimenez@thecrimson.com.

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