Gage Wallace in Red Theater’s ‘An Oak Tree.’ (Photo: Matt Wade)
By Becky Sarwate
Red Theater Chicago’s production of An Oak Tree has a lot of good ideas. Written as it were by Tim Crouch, the semi-improvisational script tackles themes of loss, guilt and the ways one might manipulate reality to manage overwhelming experiences. It also leverages a handy and creative metaphor for that exploration.
Featuring Gage Wallace as First Actor, or Hypnotist, the play’s action occurs a year after a tragedy for which the Hypnotist is partly responsible. The family-friendly practitioner of the occult has lost his mojo, a development he reveals honestly and exhaustedly to his latest audience. When the Hypnotist seeks volunteers to participate in his “act” (word very carefully chosen), his eyes fall upon a man he does not recognize, but should. Without giving away spoilers, the actor who takes a seat upon the Hypnotist’s stage is intimately involved in last year’s tragedy, and the two characters begin a cerebral, transcendental verbal dance that slowly exposes their respective suffering.
Here’s the script’s creative rub. Second Actor, or the individual who raises his or her hand to be hypnotized, is played each night by a different performer. Per An Oak Tree’s press packet, “the second actor will discover the play and their role at the same time as you [audience members] do.” Actors and actresses who’ve agreed to take on the role are announced the Tuesday before the production’s weekend performances.
During the showing I attended late last week, actress Isa Arciniegas accepted the challenge of appearing opposite Mr. Wallace. I saw Ms. Arciniegas take the stage earlier this year in the terrific Goodman Theatre production of The Wolves. The talented performer brings some of the same emotional intensity exhibited in that work to An Oak Tree. Given the improvisational demands placed upon her, the actress’s success in modulation, her ability to draw it in or let go with barely a moment’s notice, is quite an achievement. On this evening, she was the standout star of the play.
Mr. Wallace is a bit of an enigma, enough for me to wonder if his evident pre-show anxiety is an exercise in meta-reality or Method acting. In communicating proactive audience instructions, he seems overly solicitous in controlling what happens offstage and limiting the variables. Once the fourth wall has been reinforced and the play’s action begins, he never breaks with that original, jittery character. Maybe we’re not meant to know where Mr. Wallace’s reality ends and the Hypnotist’s begins. It’s interesting as well as confusing and frustrating.
What is less confusing, but very frustrating, is a plot-moving device built into the play’s structure. Sometimes Second Actor is given a few pages of rough scene and dialogue with which to create. At other times, the performer du jour receives instruction from Mr. Gage, speaking into his deactivated Hypnotist microphone, carrying direction into the actor’s headset. These unheard verbal cues can occur for long stretches of seconds that smash that fourth wall into irrelevance. These exchanges are not subtle. We know what’s happening, even if we can’t make out the words. And in cases of light attendance, that maddening whispering carries all the way to the cheap seats.
In yet a third scenario, the role of the Hypnotist calls upon Mr. Gage to leverage another kind of direction, which can only be described by this critic as Jedi Mind Tricks. For example, the Hypnotist will pose a question to Second Actor, then follow it with a response instruction like, “Say yes.” The Second Actor will then parrot the commanded words.
Somewhere in all of this, I felt momentary flashes of understanding. Perhaps Director Jerry Aluma and Mr. Wallace (both Red Theater Company members) were communicating something important about the experience of human grief. At one point, I questioned if both characters were actually dead. Then I wondered if the Hypnotist might be yanking the actor’s chain or vice versa. Ultimately, however, and compounded by the plot moving devices described above, it’s the audience on the receiving end of most of the manipulation. If that’s what Mr. Crouch, Mr. Aluma and Mr. Gage intended, then the show is a success.
An Oak Tree
2936 N Southport, Chicago
Through December 9
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.