Tim Crouch is greeting a new actor on stage every night at the Odyssey Theatre. That’s because the play he wrote and stars in, An Oak Tree, is a two-hander that’s meant to contain surprises every night. Well, sort of.
The story, that of a grieving father and a hypnotist, has been clearly mapped out by Crouch, who won an OBIE award for the show when it ran off-Broadway in 2007. The part that is hard to predict is how each new actor playing opposite Crouch will improvise emotions, facial expressions, physical movement and all the other trappings of a live performance, especially since he or she hasn’t read the script prior to the curtain’s rising. Each actor spends a mere 30 minutes with Crouch before it’s show time.
Thus, participation in this off-the-cuff theatrical experiment is a big risk, and some big-name actors have signed on in the past, including Frances McDormand, Lili Taylor, David Hyde Pierce, and Adam Rapp.
Crouch has a big personality and he brings a showman’s largess to the role of the hypnotist, a man who has accidentally struck and killed a young girl while driving. The father of said girl shows up at the hypnotist’s cheesy, game-show-type gig one night and volunteers to be part of the on-stage antics. When the hypnotist discovers the father’s identity, things get very emotional very quickly.
Though the show comes off as a bit contrived – a style that Crouch humorously cops to on stage – there’s power in watching an unrehearsed actor make his or her way through a 90-minute drama.
Crouch outfits his revolving co-star with headphones, through which he feeds him or her stage directions, lines, and cues that the audience can’t hear. He also, at times, comes right out and tells the actor what to say in full earshot of the audience.
This consistent order-giving can be infuriating, especially if you’re expecting the actor to actually improvise any lines. The night I attended, Dan O’Connor, founder of Impro Theatre, played the father, and there were several moments in which I wanted to see him buck the orders of Crouch and have an emotional reaction that was all his own. But Crouch calls every shot, setting up each scene with specific textual directions for his leading man or lady. Thus, the freedom for the actor playing the father is in the emotional heft he or she chooses to give the scripted lines, and that freedom is enough to produce an entertaining, often poignant piece of theatre.
Through Sunday, February 14 at The Odyssey Theatre. Call 310.477.2055.
Mirror Contributing Writeramy@smmirror.com