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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
An Oak Tree
Crouch's nightly acting companion has never read the script (there is one) or seen the play before. Performer X learns many of his/her lines fed to him directly by Crouch via microphone to ear phone whispers while music is playing. At other times, a script is used.
The second player's assignment is not a cakewalk. He is the play's central character: Andy a grieving father confronting the hypnotist who is responsible for his daughter's death. The play contains, therefore, a recognizable developmental progression from Point A to Point B in these odd 75 minutes. How much any actor achieves that journey only members of that night's audience will know since a new Andy will take over the next time the curtain parts.
We are asked, then, to evaluate not so much Crouch's play which, while scripted, remains ever a work in progress. The actor certainly has his part down. He has hypnotized fellow board-trodders from Edinburgh to Finland, to Canada and all ports in between (New York, too as noted via Curtainup's earlier review.
The play's title, and thematic inspiration if you will, is a 1973 living art exhibition at the Tate Modern by Michael Craig-Martin titled An Oak Tree. It offered a glass of water and accompanied by a text in which an artist claims to have changed it into a fully grown oak. Perspective, imagination, suggestion and reconsideration play important roles in the cycle of grief. And who better to understand this than a man who makes his living inviting drunken audience members up on stage, putting them to sleep and suggesting to them that, say, an invisible balloon is pulling their hand up in the air.
Our Hypnotist isn't doing so well with this these days. Since the car accident that killed a child, he's been off his game, faltering in his patter, having less success with his volunteers. On the night depicted in An Oak Tree, the only one of some 10 volunteers who seems open to the power of suggestion is Andy, and he's going under too effectively. The Hypnotist, who doesn't recognize Andy, thinks the man's a disruptive plant.
Brown, with his bushy gray hair, low menacing voice and watery eyes, is deadly serious and he worked some quite real tears into his performance. The interlude where a casually vindictive Hypnotist decides to make Andy (who he still doesn't recognize) believe himself naked and worse, is laced with cruelty. Brown's Andy does what anybody in that situation would do: he heads for a corner.
The Hypnotist takes a journey himself, but Crouch must expend so much energy keeping his play's loose structure and helping his fellow actor through that his character falls off the table a bit. And with Crouch's line between "this is the play" and "this is us putting on the play" being so fluid, it can occasionally be difficult for an audience member to get his bearings.
Even so, there remains something kind of haunting and remarkable about An Oak Tree. As an exercise in un-improvised, spontaneous dramatics, the play is as unique as any of its individual performances now promise to be.