If you want to know what Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree is about, and what it is like, first read his own description. You can also read the great reviews, although it might not be necessary after the first text. If you want to go deeper, there is a work called An Oak Tree, by Michael Craig-Martin, which inspired the piece. Now, join me.
This is not about hypnotism. Contrary to what Tim Crouch suggested after the show, I don't think a spectator is ever in a state of semi-hypnosis.
And this is not about hypnotism anyway. Although it might seem so - since it's all about the idea of believing in a world that isn't real. For the spectators, this means that we need to imagine most of the story. We get little fragments, bits and pieces, interpreted in a very "minimalist" way. The rest is our job. And that's fine, since we get lots of hints and aides in this imaginative work.
On the other hand, for the invited actor (every night a new one, and who doesn't know anything about the show) who simply follows instructions, believing in a world that isn't real means being manipulated. Doing things just because you are told to do so. How will you deal with it? And who are you when doing them? Are you the person that's trying to obey, are you some sort of an instant character, or are you yourself that decides to be someone else?
All this appears on stage in Tim Crouch's new piece. It is a true gem, a balanced, daring performance that left me fascinated by the mechanisms of belief and obedience. The story is a sad one, one of those tragedies that bring about the relief of melancholy. But we know it's just a story. We are being reminded time and again that this is all fake. Jumping in and out of the role, and insisting that the second actor not interpret (he simply doesn't get a chance to really go for it), Tim Crouch makes sure this doesn't become a psychological drama. One could even think the drama is taken away through all these theater and manipulative tricks and halts. But exactly the opposite happens: because it's so apparently dry and distant, we have breathing space. And we are forced to make the distance and imagine it all ourselves. Can you be any more distanced than having actors not act? Actually, you can, and Tim Crouch was - in his first play for adults, My Arm (before that he only made theater for children). And I think he went too far. In My Arm, the different roles were played by objects brought by the spectators. And since they were randomly chosen, they really had nothing to tell us. And it made little difference if we were watching, or just listening - the objects were sadly disposable. This time, though, everything changes. For suddenly, Tim Crouch, the master of objectification, has a challenge: a human being. And this human being on stage looks incredibly powerful and attractive because of the very fact of being one of us. And no matter how submitted he becomes, his presence is never disposable. The game between obedience and liberty is very subtle (little to do with gameshow situations). It has to do with orders, with subordinating oneself for the sake of something that is beyond you. And this is a little disturbing. We feel that Tim Crouch is using the actor, that although he doesn't ridicule him, he could, and this very possibility is discomforting.
The first night I saw it, the invited actress (the gender of the actor is indifferent to the play) was Cathy Nadan from Forced Entertainment. It was an unbelievable show. And although Tim insisted that no show is better or worse because of the actor, that they are simply different, I had a different impression. The next day I went to see the show again, this time with Teatro Praga's André C. Teodosio. He is a very good actor and it went fine. But it also confirmed what I'd suspected: that previous night was something special. You see, you have a show where it's all about instant reactions - reading from a text, repeating what you are told, making the actions you are told to... and you have an actress that has been doing exactly this (well, not only) for some 20 years. Maybe that's why she simply didn't let him manipulate too much - she gained a very delicate, and yet powerful, autonomy. It looked as if the role had been written for her: the perfect amount of an "amateur" attitude, just the right touch of pure theater interpretation, and above all, going with the flow as if this were the most natural of all things that can possibly happen on stage. Because of that, the strange feeling that it's a one man show after all went away, leaving us with what one of the best things the stage can offer: a true performance, where people do things and react and make us wonder how come we never see anything that pretty.