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In the prologue to Henry V, Shakespeare begs our indulgence in staging the battle of Agincourt. He asks us to envision many men and much bloodshed when little is pictured—to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Few contemporary works are so forthright about the substitutions that theater makes and the audience cooperation it entails. Spectators must grant that the actors onstage are representing other people, the rooms other rooms, the chairs other (perhaps much nicer) chairs. Tim Crouch’s remarkable play An Oak Tree lays these agreements bare. A study of perception—and also grief—Crouch shows how audience and actors collaborate to make theater.
Crouch borrows his title from a 1973 piece of conceptual artwork by Michael Craig-Martin, which pictures a glass of water on a shelf accompanied by a fragment of text announcing that the artist has transformed this glass of water into an oak tree. You might see only a glass, but the artist wants you to see a tree. Crouch plays similar perceptual games. He stars in the play as a hypnotist and recruits a different actor every night to play the second character, a father whose daughter the hypnotist killed in a road accident. While the father arrives at the hypnotist’s show unannounced, the actor playing the father arrives at An Oak Tree unprepared. He (sometimes she) hasn’t created a character or learned lines; he hasn’t even read a script. Via audible instruction and clipboards holding pages of dialogue, Crouch guides the actor.
On the night I attended, Broadway star Steve Blanchard walked on as more or less himself, then adjusted as Crouch informed him, “You’re a father. You’re name’s Andy. You’re 46. . . . Your lips are cracked, your fingernails are dirty. You’re wearing a crumpled Gore-Tex jacket.” Blanchard made to appear older, more tired; his leather jacket was less successful in its attempt. Both Crouch and the actor wove in and out of character, requiring the audience to follow those shifts. Indeed, the audience is occasionally asked to take on a role itself—that of the audience upstairs in a London pub at the hypnotist’s show. These transformations back and forth are marvelous, almost alchemical—so much so that the play’s actual narrative, a poignant one about the transmuting powers of loss, is itself somewhat lost, overshadowed by the formal sophistication. But even if the play does founder emotionally (and perhaps catharsis is achieved on other nights), it succeeds otherwise. We can safely say of Crouch, as both actor and character (as well as playwright and co-director): He’s hypnotic.