Red Theater Chicago opened its 7th season with An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch, produced by Artistic Director Aaron Sawyer, Anna Rachel Troy and Marisa Lerman, directed by Jeremy Aluma and starring Gage Wallace. With this play, Red Theater Chicago, in its commitment “to honor all audiences by asking dangerous questions through accessible performances that broaden perspectives and inspire dialogue” has introduced into its repertoire an interesting piece of experimental theater; it’s an odd one-act show, disturbing and cerebral.
In each performance of the play, two actors present the seemingly improvised but actually tautly controlled “script” on an almost bare stage. However, Gage Wallace, the “first actor”, had read, rehearsed the play, been directed, and has acted in every presentation. The second actor, the night this reviewer attended being Niko Kourtis, had never even read the play before! Performed by a different person each night, the second actor supposedly “discovers the play” and his role at the same time as the audience, but this member of the audience did not “discover” the play until after I had spent the entire ride home- and the following morning- talking with my guest.
In the Midwest Premiere of this convoluted exploration of the ravages of guilt/blame, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief, An Oak Tree asks us all: How do we process reality? How do we allow others to influence our perceptions of reality? What types of mental devices do we all use to transform the pain of existence into a manageable ongoing life? and What is the nature of dissociation? It also asks us to expand our notions of theater itself, in a 70-minute exercise in sensory perception.
Wallace portrays a man, a hypnotist by trade, who has accidentally killed a child; the second performer plays that girl’s father, “Andy”. The time frame of the encounter shifts; unseen presences “appear” on stage. The hypnotist serves as a character, a critic, the audience guide, and as the visible director of the encounter with Andy, who has embraced the notion that an oak tree near his home is-in actuality- his lost daughter. By the end of this performance, members of the audience may well believe it, too! The actors were beguiling, if not exactly sympathetic; that was the nature of their roles.
The hypnotist stutters under his burden of control and lets loose with expletives and inappropriate grins and snickers. Andy isn’t free to do much improvising, but struggles against the hypnotic fetters. At some point, more questions arise: Who is manipulating whom? Who sought out whom? Are any of us able to accept loss head-on, to forgive each other, to forgive ourselves? The play is unsettling and affecting, it shakes our complacent linear dramatic sensibilities, just like life’s tragedies, and it fools with our sense of time, place and self. How can we bear to face the here and now without filters, without magic?
Kudos to the artistic team including scenic and prop design by Alex Casillas, costume design by Hailey Rakowiecki, sound design by John Nichols III, and lighting design by Abby Beggs.
Remaining performances through December 9, 2018 at the Athenaeum Theatre in Studio One at 2936 N. Southport Ave, Chicago. For information and tickets to An Oak Tree, go to www.redtheater.org
All photos of Gage Wallace by Matt Wade