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Theater review: 'An Oak Tree' at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

January 7, 2010 |  4:00 pm

Oaktree1 If ever a show could be said to beggar description, it is “An Oak Tree,” now in its Los Angeles premiere at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. A British import that received an Obie Special Citation during its off-Broadway run, the play was written by theater artist Tim Crouch, who co-directed it with a smit and Karl James.

The premise of Crouch’s two-person piece sounds deceptively simple: A stage hypnotist (Crouch) solicits a volunteer from the audience, initially unaware that the individual is the father of the 12-year-old girl he ran over and killed three months ago.

Here’s the wrinkle. A new actor, male or female, plays the father at each performance. That person, who has never read or seen the show before, meets with Crouch a scant hour before curtain. Yet, as is firmly asserted in the program notes, the piece is wholly scripted. The sole improvisation comes in how the newcomer interprets the role.

From an actor’s perspective, that may sound a bit harrowing. But on opening night, guest artist Peter Gallagher plunged boldly into Crouch’s construct, delivering a performance of such authority it seemed almost impossible to believe that he had no previous knowledge of his material.

“Oak Tree” involves a rotating cast of celebrities -- other productions have featured Geoffrey Rush, Mike Myers, David Hyde Pierce and Frances McDormand in the role of the father. (The actor playing the father is not announced until the night of the show.) That gives the whole enterprise the faint aroma of a vanity piece. Certainly, in one sense, Crouch has created a blatant novelty act -- perhaps appropriately so, considering that his character is a cheesy showman, albeit in the grip of an emotional crisis.

But the intrinsically maudlin subject matter takes a surprisingly metaphysical twist. It’s interesting to note that Crouch was initially inspired by an installation at the Tate Modern by an artist who claimed, impossibly, to have transmuted a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree.

At first, Crouch’s oak tree -- the one involved in the fatal crash -- seems much more substantial in nature. Yet as the evening progresses, prolix philosophical concepts knock the audience increasingly off-center. Is the tree, as the father has come to believe, actually the physical embodiment of his dead daughter? Or is the father merely mad?

On opening night, Gallagher’s grief-stricken father produced an atmosphere of anguish that cast light on some of Crouch’s impenetrable themes. Of course, the tone will necessarily change with each new performer, but the final point, one suspects, will remain elusive. What is clear is that Crouch is an assured puppet master who inspires trust in his intrepid guest performers. In that regard, Crouch’s multilayered play is as much a master class in acting as it is an intriguing meta-theatrical exercise.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“An Oak Tree,” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 14. $30. (310) 477-2055 (cq), Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes


Above: Meagan English and Tim Crouch in 'An Oak Tree.'  Photo credit: William Adashek