AN OAK TREE: in which nothing is what it appears to be
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: April 4-14, 2018 (8 performances only)
Ticket Prices: $25 General; $10 Students/Military/RVATA
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
Every playwright, director, artistic director thinks their work is unique. In the case of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree I can quite honestly say this is not like any play you’ve ever seen before.
Landon Nagel plays the role of the Hypnotist each night, but the other actor, the Father, is played by a guest actor who has not seen the script before the show. These guest actors, as they are called, will include Aaron Anderson, Brandon Carter, Audra Honaker, Boomie Pedersen, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Alan Sader, Foster Solomon, and Tyler Stevens. I went on Wednesday, the preview night, and Audra Honaker had the honor of being the first of the guest actors. For those who are curious how the show might differ with different cast members, the Firehouse is offering an Acorn to Oak Upgrade: for $20 you can come to as many of the performances as you like. I assume the guest actors are forbidden from reading reviews – so if any of you happened to get this far: STOP HERE! Do not read this until April 15!
Without giving away any secrets to legitimate, paying audience members, An Oak Tree does, in fact, have a plot. The Father lost his daughter who was killed after getting hit by a car while walking to her piano lesson. The Hypnotist was the driver of the car. Both men have been affected by the accident. The Father has transferred his love and grief for his daughter onto an oak tree at the side of the road near the accident scene, while the Hypnotist has lost his powers of suggestion. The Father has come to the Hypnotist’s stage show to find answers. After that, things become, well, confusing. Everything that happens, everything that is said is scripted, yet nothing is what it seems to be.
Landon Nagel, who at the beginning of the play describes himself perfectly – 6’2”, thick brown hair – is perfectly cast for the role of Hypnotist. I could not tell whether his frequent verbal stumblings and reversals were scripted or opening-night jitters. Given the Hypnotist’s state of mind, I’ll opt for the former and find out later. Like a true hypnotist, Nagel draws his audience in, and at the end, we’re not quite sure of what we have seen and heard.
Honaker appeared quite confident in her unrehearsed role and even said afterwards that she loved the freedom of not having to over-rehearse. Honaker provided several moments of humor in this otherwise dark play. Nagel feeds her lines, some of which we can hear, and some delivered through an earpiece so that only she can hear. When he asks for volunteers from the audience, Honaker is assigned all the roles, and when the Hypnotist introduces the faux volunteers, Honaker uses a different voice and body language for each. Later, as the Father, after being hypnotized into believing she is naked, she climbs over a piano stool and slips behind the raised stage. Nagel and Honaker worked well together.
About those volunteers: Nagel makes an announcement at the beginning of the play that when he asks for volunteers, the “real” audience is not to respond. On Wednesday night, one audience member either did not hear or choose not to follow those directions and proceeded to behave as if this was a show with audience participation. I did check to see if this was scripted and confirmed that he was, indeed, an actual heckler. Did I mention he was wearing a hat. . .?
The title, An Oak Tree, is taken from Michael Craig-Martin’s conceptual art work of the same name. Created in 1973, Craig-Martin’s work consists of a glass of water on a glass shelf, and an accompanying text. The text, in the form of a Q&A or interview, includes the statements: “I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.”
In the play, the father has changed the physical substance of his daughter into a tree, and the hypnotist has adopted Craig-Martin’s philosophy that the artist speaks to a receptive audience. An Oak Tree is directed by Mark J. Lerman. Tennessee Dixon is the production designer, and Todd Labelle designed the lights. Robbie Kinter’s sound design, which included some original music, was especially effective, subtly creating the perfect hypnotic atmosphere. The technology was seamless. Honaker received a lot of her direction through an earpiece, and Nagel had handle a hand-held mic (which, to my surprise, was not annoying), and tap a foot pedal to switch from talking to the audience to speaking into Honaker’s earpiece.
An Oak Tree is not your usual play; it is, after all, based on a conceptual work of art. What did I think of it? I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s not what I expected. To take a cue from the director, Lerman, “That’s all I have to say….Still need more? Then it’s time to watch the play.” An Oak Tree runs just over an hour, with no intermission.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos