Playwright-performer Tim Crouch has brought his play An Oak Tree to the Odyssey Theatre after some 250 performances from Melbourne to Moscow. It was a sleeper hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 and broke box-office records during its run at London’s Soho Theatre. It also received a Special Citation Obie Award when he performed it at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2007. It’s one of those rare productions that more than lives up to its track record.
The best way to discuss what is both an emotional and very conceptual performance is to start with the work of art that inspired it — Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree at London’s Tate Modern in 1973. There was a glass of water on a high shelf, three-quarters full. Beside it was the following text:
Q: To begin with, could you describe this work?
A: Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q: The accidents?
A: Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size . . .
Q: Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A: No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water. It’s an oak tree.
Q: Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
A: Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. . . . One could call it anything one wished, but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.
The dialogue goes on in this manner; you get the idea. How can an object be something that all of our senses indicate it is not, just because somebody says it is so — or, to be more precise, suggests it is so? Crouch’s play is, at its core, about hypnosis and the power of suggestion, or what theater people like to call “the suspension of disbelief.”
These questions cut to the heart of how we process information, both artistically and empirically. Reading a novel, or even a newspaper story, is an act of conjuring. We respond to the story of a car crash or a terrorist bomb from dots on a page, pixels on a screen. We make the incident real — the smoke, explosion, screams, sirens — entirely from the power of suggestion. It might have the powerful authenticity as though we had been there and experienced it. But we weren’t, and we didn’t.
Or did we?
Crouch’s luminous play An Oak Tree is the story of a hypnotist who, driving one day, strikes and kills a child named Claire. Months later, he’s not faring well, and his magic act has become distracted. On one such occasion, he discovers that one of his volunteers from the audience is Claire’s despondent father, Andy.
Among the many provocative theatrical conceits is that the actor playing Andy changes nightly. (Crouch plays the hypnotist like some echo of a Victorian carnival barker — shaved head, ingratiating patter, a master in the stylish art of fakery.) His nightly volunteer is cast ahead of time but doesn’t meet Crouch until about an hour before the performance. (On the night I attended, actor Kurtwood Smith played Andy.) The actor is shown a script beforehand — not the actual script to be used but one much like it so that the actor can become familiar with the form of the text, the length of the lines, how the stage directions are written. About 15 minutes before the performance begins, the actor, wearing headphones, joins the audience. With the flip of an onstage switch, Crouch — armed with a handheld microphone — can give private instructions to the actor through the headphones. The device cuts to the essence of theater’s spontaneity. The lines are entirely scripted, but the actions change every night — as they do in all good productions.
With co-direction by Crouch, Karl James and A. Smith, what we’re seeing is the somewhat spontaneous act of drama unfolding, often with scripts in hand, in the midst of a hypnotist’s act. The script-in-hand device was quite the rage in Britain a few years ago among alternative-theater companies. Forced Entertainment used it in a performance called Exquisite Pain, actors sitting at a table, reciting the tortured diary of the French artist Sophie Calle, also in an effort to bridge the divide between text and experience.
Crouch, however, is an entertainer, jubilant and charming, bouncing all over the stage. His role of a hypnotist revisiting the crisis of his horrendous car accident contains so many realities crashing into each other, they melt into a surreal swirl that keeps spinning. The actor playing the victim’s father does his best (beautifully, in Smith’s case) to read from a script in which he’s to be transported to states of both paralysis and rapture. He also plays other volunteers, one of whom is instructed to hold a helium balloon, floating skyward. The hypnotist relishes the cruel power of leaving him paralyzed like a statue. Just having a lark, he gloats.
Crouch portrays agony over what he’s done, stops his performance midsentence to give an instruction to Smith — “Say yes, that’s right’ ” — and Smith does. Then Crouch snaps back into his conjured agony.
This is what Bertolt Brecht dreamed of when he came up with theory of the alienation effect. In the ’90s, they might have called it Postmodernism, but it’s closer to Brecht because it’s actually an emotional experience, not just the dissection of one.
In life, Claire was taking piano lessons, and we hear her flawed rendition of a Bach piano étude while Andy stands by a frigid roadside at dawn, next to an oak tree. He gently scoops out sections of the oak tree, which he has transformed into Claire. I’ve never seen a depiction of grief so tender and harrowing at the same time.
Andy’s wife, Dawn, goes insane, despairing that her husband is so removed from the reality of what’s happening. She says he needs closure. Were you ever in love with me, or Claire, she asks? Or with the idea of us.
Exactly. Welcome to the land of the romantics, where empirical truths are just a bit too much to bear. Welcome to the land where a glass of water becomes an oak tree, or an oak tree becomes a deeply missed child. Welcome to the land of fictions that are both deluded and restorative — removing us from prosaic realities while helping us to find ourselves at the same time. Welcome to the theater.
AN OAK TREE | Written and performed by TIM CROUCH | Presented by PAGE ONE PRODUCTIONS and the ODYSSEY THEATRE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Through February 14 | (310) 477-2055, ext. 2