Sunday, February 4, 2007

Tim Crouch's AN OAK TREE & MY ARM Review

I have been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between theatre-going and faith, about how going to the theatre is at some level an act of faith. Of course, the epiphanies promised to the faithful are most often hidden and denied, and these epiphanies happen as rarely to those of us held in thrall to the theatre as they do to the everyday religious faithful. So, when we are so often disappointed - constantly and consistently insulted by acts of deadly-theatre making - how and why do we keep going? The answer is simple: Because every once in a rare while we encounter an act of theatre that measures up, that gives us what we are seeking, that fills a missing space in our lives, even in our souls.

This week I went to see British actor Tim Crouch's one-act plays AN OAK TREE and MY ARM, brought to Victoria for four nights only by Intrepid Theatre (thank you Janet, Ian & Nathan!) Crouch has been performing and touring these plays over the past 4 years throughout England and Scotland, Europe, America and Canada (see his website While I enjoyed MY ARM very much - a monodrama telling the story of a young boy of ten who, for mysterious reasons, decides one day to raise his arm above his head and keep it there (for the rest of his life) - it was AN OAK TREE that for me became an epiphany that restored my faith.

In what at first glance seems to be a rather masochistic choice, Crouch chooses to perform his two-hander play with a second actor who has never seen the play or a script beforehand. This actor is recruited by the producers wherever the play is happening; in New York, Crouch played against such well-known actors such as Joan Allen, Frances McDormand, and Mike Myers. Crouch spends an hour before the show talking his volunteer actor through what is going to happen, encouraging them and allaying any fears that they will be called on to improvise at all. Everything the second actor is asked to do is scripted in some way; Crouch asks his partner to repeat lines back to him, or whispers lines in a mike that the partner hears through headphones and repeats, or hands the partner clipboards with text that they read together. All of this is completely apparent to the audience, who is "in on it" from the beginning and throughout the show. Our empathy is already highly-engaged with the second actor and the challenges he or she is facing (even though the character is the "Father", Crouch is happy to have male or female actors take the role).

Inside this premise the story we are told is of a hypnotist who has accidentally hit and killed a young girl in a car accident. The hypnotist, played by Crouch, shows us his act by enrolling us as a pub audience that witnesses his show. When he calls for volunteers, the second actor steps onto the stage (we have been told beforehand not to participate in this way, with a measure of audiences most often don't care much for participation!). It is known to us, but not to the hypnotist, that this second character is the father of the dead girl. As the play proceeds, we see the father successfully hypnotized and taken through various humiliating tasks by the hypnotist who thinks he's being "had" by the father. When the father finally reveals his identity, the hypnotist is shattered and the "act" ends. The pub audience is sent away, but we (the "real" audience) are allowed to then see how this highly-emotional encounter plays out through flashbacks, scenes, monologues, even scenes with other characters played by Crouch. Throughout all of this, the second actor is kept totally "in the moment" as he or she responds to whatever Crouch offers as text. Crouch himself plays both actor and director, seamlessly, as he shifts from playing the devastated hypnotist into playing himself as director side-coaching his partner.

As confusing as this may sound, it is never once confusing in the playing of it. We always know who is speaking and what is happening, even where we are as we shift from the pub show to the father's home, to a car, to the side of the road where an oak tree marks the spot where the daughter died. In the end, we see a father so in denial in his grief that he comes to believe his daughter has become part of everything, especially as the oak tree he cannot keep from visiting even as his wife suffers and threatens to leave him. The hypnotist is so guilt-ridden he can no longer hypnotize and is left with his own life in tatters.

I could use words like "metatheatrical" here, or "postmodern" or "deconstructive", but these critical terms would only absolve me of speaking more deeply about what this play gave me. As an actor who sometimes has dreamt the classic actor's nightmare of performance anxiety - appearing onstage in a play where I have no idea what character I am playing or what my lines and actions are supposed to be - AN OAK TREE has given me what might have seemed impossible; a therapeutic purging of this nightmare through its realworld realization. I have seen this happen to an actor (my former professor and friend John Krich) and have seen him survive. I have seen him taken through this nightmare experience at the level of both actor and character, a doubling effect that only deepened its effect. And I have seen him emerge undamaged, even, perhaps, reborn? Thus, as given to us in the myth of Christ and many other religious mythologies, there is life after death, reincarnation is possible, just as experienced by the father in the play who sees his daughter inside a tree. I am heartened by this, made just a little bit stronger, able to go on.

It is for experiences such as this one - given in the greatest spirit of sacrifice and generosity and courage and artistry and complexity and simplicity by Crouch and his volunteer partners - that allow me to hold on to this strangely arcane act of faith and witness that I call theatre-going.

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