an oak tree
nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
November 3, 2006
an oak tree needs to be seen and experienced. It's not a perfect play, but it is by far the best play for two characters in which one character is played by the playwright, who hypnotizes the other character, played by a different actor every night, one who has had no previous knowledge of the script or what the play is about. This is such a unique idea, and even if the play is flawed, it is never gimmicky. an oak tree is just as weirdly mysterious as my brief description sounds. Some readers might decide that this British export is not their cup of tea, but the more adventurous among you should be excited by the very idea behind this play. Either way, trust your instincts.
When I learned about the nature of the performance of an oak tree (the part about the actor being hypnotized in order to be in the play) I was immediately hooked—I didn't even really care what the play was about, I just wanted to see how the hypnotist-actor and the hypnotized actor pull it off. But there's also a real story being told here: A man in a small town is grieving for his young daughter, who was killed in a car accident involving a hypnotist. The father stalks the hypnotist and ends up on stage at the hypnotist's act. The hypnotist hypnotizes the father into believing that the father is responsible for the death of a girl.
And so this play is about loss, grief, mourning, guilt, shame, penance, forgiveness, memory, intimacy, and connection. It is also, of course, about hypnosis, which is the overriding metaphor of the play, encompassing both form and content. Acting and hypnosis are similar in general, since an actor must will him- or herself into a kind of trance in order for the actor to "believe" that he or she "is" Hamlet or Mary Tyrone or whoever. And watching a play is similar to being hypnotized in the sense that we allow ourselves (on some level) to believe that we're in the Danish court or a house in Connecticut, instead of in a theatre.
Extending the metaphor further, loss is a form of hypnosis, too. The father in an oak tree believes that his dead daughter has become an oak tree; this is, of course, an extreme example of the trance-like quality of grieving, but we almost always convince ourselves of one form of mythology or another in order to cope with loss. an oak tree intensifies the link hypnosis shares with loss and theatre itself in order to expose the fragile connection that we all have to other people and to ourselves. The hypnotist and the father in the play are antagonists, and yet they each need the other to overcome their suffering. In order for their suffering to be surmounted, they must abandon, to an alarming degree, who they believe themselves to be.
Most people are reticent, if not terrified, of being hypnotized out of the common suspicion that the hypnotist (a dubious profession, it seems to many of us) might take advantage of us while under a spell. No one wants to be caught in a trance, squawking like a chicken. These menacing associations that so many of us have about hypnosis are bumped up quite a few notches in this play. Tim Crouch, who wrote the play and also plays the hypnotist, portrays his character as a lounge-lizard-y type, one who is willing to humiliate the subjects he keeps in his thrall for a cheap laugh. And the emotional hoops that he makes the father jump through are often cruel and deeply disturbing to watch. The unease that we feel as an audience to this almost sadomasochistic display is important to experience through the context of the brutal circumstances the two characters have been through and with which they continue to struggle.
However, we know that we're in good hands here and that this subject matter will not be exploitative. Tim Crouch appears at the beginning of the show as himself. He brings up the actor he'll be working with (the night I saw the show, the actor was Reed Birney. A few nights before, it was F. Murray Abraham. A night later, it was James Urbaniak) and hypnotizes the actor. Throughout, Crouch leads the other actor by feeding him lines of dialogue and essentially "blocking" him in the action. Crouch is amazingly warm and genial as himself, especially in comparison to the harsh portrayal he gives later on in the evening. This 180-degree turn not only shows off Crouch's range as an actor, but also allows us to trust him as the playwright (and as a human being) as he takes us along for this wild ride. My raves for Reed Birney won't have any bearing on future performances of an oak tree, since he will definitely not be in the play on the night when you see it, but believe me when I tell you that this actor perfectly wedded his own reflex reaction to the play to a real and grounded performance with wit and great sympathy.
I must say that despite the brilliant concept behind the play, the vivid performances, and the engaging subject matter, I was left extremely confused by a great deal that happens onstage in an oak tree. The play does not seem to follow the conventional structure of a well-made play (it's kind of a play-within-a-sideshow-within-a-flashback-within-a-nightmare) and I too often wondered what was happening or why what was happening was happening. It also remains unclear to me how "real" the hypnosis was, which may be part of the point of the play, but it kept me from being completely connected to the story. The play is co-directed by the playwright, Karl James, and someone named "a smith." Perhaps one of the other two directors needs to help ground this abundantly talented actor-playwright in a reality that he and the audience can share.
Still, an oak tree is a dark, funny, often puzzling, often disturbing, and almost unwaveringly powerful night of theatre. Crouch strikes me not just as the Real Deal, but as someone who is completely on his own distinct path. After seeing an oak tree, I will keep paying attention to where this path leads. And you should, too.