An Oak Tree - Theatre on Fire

An Oak Tree - Theatre on Fire


An Oak Tree – Theatre on Fire

Review by James Wilkinson 

An Oak Tree is presented by Theatre on Fire. Written by Michael Carr. Directed by A. Nora Long. Sound Design: Nathaniel Talbot. Lighting Design: Darren Evans.

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, now being presented by Theatre on Fire, is described in the program notes as “a theatrical experiment” rather than as “a play.” Whatever it is, the piece involves two performers. The first is a character identified as “The Hypnotist” who is being played by Michael Carr. The second person on stage changes with each performance and will be someone who has not read the script. They’ll be stepping into the show completely blind, having only the Hypnotist for guidance through the evening.

…And that’s all you’re getting from me in terms of show description.

There are some shows where knowing the details of how the thing will unfold is going to be absolutely lethal to what it’s trying to accomplish. An Oak Tree falls into that category. It kind of kills me that it does because there are so many wonderful specific moments that I want to discuss and can’t for fear of ruining the show for you, dear reader. The power of these moments (and ultimately, the show) comes from their unpredictability. The creative impulses of writer Crouch, director A. Nora Long and performer Carr have all merged together into something rather glorious. It’s not that it subverts your expectations, it’s that it prevents you from developing expectations in the first place. You don’t know where it’s going. It seems to be spinning into chaos. Then, when it arrives at the final destination, it takes your breath away to step back and realize just how many levels down you’ve gone.

What I can say, though, is that structurally, the play calls to mind a lot of Caryl Churchill’s later work where she begins experimenting with how audiences process information. The content of the play dictates the form that it will take. It’s an incredibly tricky thing to pull off in a way that feels satisfying for an audience. I’ve seen plays (including some of Churchill’s) of this ilk where emotional connection is sacrificed in favor of narrative tricks. “Look what I can do,” these plays say. If that’s the route you’re going to go, then really, you’re just asking the audience to sit in awe of your intelligence (and who the hell needs to waste an evening with that?). Crouch’s play not only avoids this trap, but openly embraces the idea of emotional connection. There are moments in the show nakedly emotional to the point that they become frightening and difficult to look at.  You feel as though something has gone wrong. We’re not supposed to be looking at this. It wasn’t supposed to get this serious. But of course, it was. The seeds were planted long ago.

Michael Carr gives an extraordinary performance that I’m worried some people will dismiss as a magic trick. I worry partly because the role is stripped of a traditional character arc and partly because a large chunk of his task is to serve as chaperon for the other performer. So what’s the big deal? Well, I’d argue that he’s performing a high-wire act akin to taking the lead in any other “traditional” play. He has the stage presence that pulls us in and the charisma that holds our attention. At times he seems to be playing five different characters as he bounces between the different layers the play is operating on. Is he Michael? Is he the Hypnotist? Is he the character within the hypnosis? (but already, I am giving too much plot away…) It’s a generous performance, one that’s focused not so much on himself and his ego, but on the act of creating a space for his costar to step into. He’s looking to give them room to release so that they’re able to sink into the production. Everything about Carr’s presence seems to assure us, “Don’t worry, I got this.”

Likewise, I think it would be very easy (and just as much of a mistake) to overlook the contributions of director A. Nora Long to the project. I say “easy” because she appears to approach the show with a very light touch but I think that her staging is what gives the play its support. It’s the skeleton inside the body. Movements are kept simple and direct so that everything feels as though it has weight. Even with a mostly bare stage, the show never ceases to be visually interesting. We’re being hypnotized right along with Carr’s co-star.

If I have a gripe with the show, it’s with the final moment. I don’t think that the play finds a proper button to end on. Up until that ending, you feel like you’re being guided through a maze of mirrors. The play reflects back on itself again and again to the point that you start to question reality. Perhaps there is no proper ending for a show like that. It could only collapse like a dying star. But everything up until that ending is magnificent and I’ll happily take it.

It’s a strange thing to praise a performance that none of you have any chance of seeing. The fact that the Hypnotist’s co-star changes every night means that the properties of the show will change with every performance. Perhaps nothing of what I’ve said above will apply to the performance you go to. I’m tempted to go back to see it again and try to get a better sense of how the whole thing works, but on second thought, I don’t want to know how the sausage was made. The experience of An Oak Tree is like observing a beautiful glass object balancing on a head of a pin. I’d rather not risk shattering the memory. Better to leave it alone and appreciate the wonder it inspires.

An Oak Tree is presented by Theatre on Fire at the Charlestown Working Theater June 13-22, 2019.

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