The “illusion of the first time” – that effortless sense of spontaneity to which all thesps aspire – is automatically achieved in Tim Crouch’s “An Oak Tree,” because for one of its players it really is the first time. In this Edinburgh Fest and international touring favorite, now landed at the Odyssey, author Crouch both plays and becomes an itinerant stage hypnotist, using whispered suggestions and occasional script pages to mesmerize an unrehearsed volunteer through a moody narrative of loss, guilt and shared identities. This exploration and celebration of pure theater’s power is a fascinating must-see.
By prearrangement but with almost no prior instruction, a guest thesp (the sturdily reliable Peter Gallagher on press night) is outfitted with iPod headphones and a front row seat, to be plucked onto the stage by Crouch as part of his late night pub act. We learn, when the performer does, the nature of the shared secret between our emcee and “Andy,” a suburban husband and father. And then we’re off and running, a scripted circus granted additional excitement with one actor as ringmaster and the other occupying the high wire.
It would be unfair to audiences and potential Andys alike to reveal much more about the backstory or the events as they unfold. (Men and women who know the piece are forbidden to step up to the challenge.) Suffice it to imagine spiritual father Pirandello beaming as Crouch tests the boundaries between character and character, character and actor and even spectator and text. The show offers its own critique: “What do you think of the play?” Crouch inquires. “I like it; well written,” responds…who? Author Crouch? Andy? Gallagher? You’ll be arguing such questions on the way home.
The text permits, even encourages each guest thesp to apply an individual stamp. Gallagher’s forte has always been playing reasonable fellows seeking to bring order to chaos, and so as Andy was put through a wringer, we could clearly see Gallagher sublimating his genuine emotional responses in order to make sense of the curves fate (and Crouch) were throwing him. A more flamboyant or intellectual Andy must go in a totally different direction, part of Crouch’s point on the fluid, chimerical nature of the theatrical event.
An Oak Tree” also offers first-hand evidence of theater’s cooperative spirit. Andy – not just Gallagher, but any Andy – is working hard to be real, while Crouch is working equally hard to be nurturing and supportive. (“You’re doing great, you’re doing fantastic,” he whispers.) When two actors dare to occupy a stage space together, what more could we as their spectators and judges possibly demand?
Among the names bruited about to step into the Los Angeles engagement are Jason Alexander, John Rubinstein and Kurtwood Smith.