Red Theater’s An Oak Tree Is an Intellectual Exercise Mixing Dream and Reality

Gage Wallace and Taryn Pearce. Photo by Matt Wade. I admire experimentation in theater, whether it’s setting a familiar Shakespearean tale behind a vinyl screen in some post-modern setting (as Gift Theatre did with Hamlet recently) or telling the Frankenstein story with video, puppets and music as Manual Cinema does at Court Theatre. Playing with the method of performance can bring new meaning to storytelling. Red Theater’s new production, An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch, is an unusual method of storytelling. First Actor (Gage Wallace) performs with a different actor each night—an actor who has not seen the script before. Jeremy Aluma’s direction makes this intriguing, if sometimes mystifying, 70 minutes of theater move smoothly. Wallace comes on stage dressed casually, greets friends in the audience, changes into white shirt, black vest and trousers and summons someone sitting behind me. It’s tonight’s Actor Two, Adithi Chandrashekar. She hasn’t seen the script or discussed the play with Wallace at all. He briefs Actor Two on the play, tells her that he is a hypnotist and the time is a year from now. The character she’s playing is a 46-year-old man named Andy whose young daughter was killed in an accident near an oak tree. An Oak Tree is, in a sense, a play within a play. Two men are linked by an accident that killed a child. And two actors, one seemingly hypnotized, relive the event and its impact. (Actually, we learn later that the accident takes place nine months from now. We are asked to consider if there’s anything that can be done to prevent it.) An Oak Tree is an intriguing experience of dream and reality. Under hypnosis, certain things happen to Actor Two that are deeply troubling. But there’s also a segment where she happily plays a syncopated solo on an invisible piano. Overall, the loss of a child is a heart-wrenching experience for a parent, and the play asks us how we can overcome such a loss. But in effect, An Oak Tree is more an intellectual experience than an emotional one. It’s brain, not heart. Wallace is a charming host for the show and engages frequently with the audience. Chandrashekar is a capable Actor Two, responding nimbly to Actor One’s cues. Wallace and Chandrashekar. Photo by Matt Wade. This is not a play-reading, where actors walk around with scripts, although at several points, Actor One hands a script to Actor Two and asks her to read some of the lines. Most of the time, Actor One whispers directions or lines into a mic that feeds into his co-star’s earbuds. This is sometimes interesting, as we struggle to hear what he’s saying. At other times, it’s just odd. I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t work just as well to have Actor Two carrying a script. While you might expect Actor Two to improvise some dialogue, in fact, there is no improv. Set and props design are by Alex Casillas with lighting by Abby Beggs. Music by John Nichols III provides intriguing segues from scene to scene. During the opening, we hear strains of "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana and later, there are piano interludes from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Tim Crouch is known as a theater experimenter—playwright, actor and director. An Oak Tree premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005, where it won an award, and later ran for three months at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York. More than 300 actors have played Actor Two. See the list of others playing Actor Two in this production here. An Oak Tree by Red Theater continues through December 9 in Studio One at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets are $22 or $20 for students.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.