Without a Net

One of the most exhilarating workouts in the city isn't to be found in any gym or Spinning class. Instead, it can be found at the Barrow Street Theater, where Tim Crouch's one of a kind production, An Oak Tree, is moving audiences and enlightening acting students all at once. Oak Tree stems from a fascinating conceit. Ostensibly, it is the story of two men: a grief-stricken father who has recently lost his daughter in a car accident and a stage hypnotist (Crouch) who was the car's driver. The twist is that a different guest actor (sometimes a male, sometimes a female) plays the father's role every night. Moreover, he or she meets Crouch only moments before show time and knows nothing about the plot or the character. Right in front of them, the audience members see Crouch instructing the actor about the performance. (Besides writing and starring in the show, he co-directed it with Karl James and a smith.)

This kind of acting without a net is nothing short of thrilling. At the performance I was privileged to see, F. Murray Abraham, the Academy Award-winning star of Amadeus, played the father. Just watching him absorb the task ahead of him, steeling himself and simultaneously tapping into his actorly resources to create a character in no time, was an education in trust—both in his own abilities and in what Crouch had in store.

In addition to the directions given in front of the audience, Crouch whispers directions into earphones so that only the guest performer can hear them. Besides appearing as himself and the father, Abraham portrayed a version of himself commenting on the play. Crouch thus intersperses the action occasionally with several faux interviews, with the actor sometimes speaking candidly and sometimes merely pretending to do so, reading answers off a clipboard.

This is not improvisation, or theater sport; Crouch has actually wound the production of Oak Tree quite tight. He gives his guest performer the freedom to create the character he or she feels is appropriate, but he ultimately controls the direction and tone the evening takes. The show has no cheap tricks or surprises. The emotions that Abraham undergoes as the father and that Crouch has as the hypnotist (whose powers have been impaired since the accident) are always genuine.

There was never a time when Abraham didn't look anguished. At certain moments, when Crouch appeared to successfully hypnotize the father, Abraham looked spellbound, convinced that he had shed his clothing and soiled himself, among the many acts the hypnotist called on him to do. And he did it all without missing a beat. Rehearsed performances are often less fluid than this, which just may be the show's point.

It is important not to downplay the importance of Crouch's role. He is the fulcrum on which the entire performance rests, and while one gets nervous for Abraham or whoever else the guest performer that evening may be, his job is even trickier. Crouch must guide the performance and be prepared for many different reactions from his scene partner. He remains engaging, empathetic, and confident throughout, thus earning the audience's trust that the show will appear polished and professional.

But his piece goes beyond that: it reveals truths about human nature and an actor's nature. One can only guess what other brave actors will jump into the hot seat as the show's run continues, but one thing is for sure: rewards abound for actor and audience alike.

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