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An Oak Tree and bobrauschenbergamerica – Los Angeles Theater Review  

 

THE OLD SHELL GAME 

 

picture - bobrauschenbergamericaTheater Review 

by Harvey Perr 

published January 31, 2010 

 

 

An Oak Tree 

now playing in Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theater

through February 14

 

and

 

bobrauschenbergamerica 

now playing in Los Angeles at Inside the Ford

through February 28

 

Critics, bored by the same old same old, search for novelty the way pigs root out truffles, and, finding it, wax ecstatic, for the sake of its novelty if nothing else. Audiences – and I’m talking about the smart ones here – are eager to go where the critics lead them, because they, too, want to be right where the wind is blowing, but are too often led astray by the world-weary critics who often mistake trickery for novelty. They are in it together, critics and audiences alike, and they stand up and cheer when the emperor appears in what looks to them like a coat of many colors, when, in fact, he is, you guessed it, buck naked. It’s as old as fable. It’s the old shell game. These thoughts came to me as I sat through Charles Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica and Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree. What, I thought, when they reflect upon these theater pieces a few years hence, if they even remember what it is they saw, will they think?

 

picture - bobrauschenbergamericaLet us take bobrauschenbergamerica first. Charles Mee is a serious theater artist with what I imagine is a genuine respect for Robert Rauschenberg’s junk-art look at the world. But what he has written is less a play than a tantalizing recipe for theatrical invention. A master chef might have taken this loosely assembled collage and turned it into a rich soufflé of kaleidoscopic Americana (the innovative Anne Bogart did just that, creating an evening of theater that is remembered as odd but joyous). I mean, after all, there’s a girl on roller skates and a chicken crossing the road and a mom who provides narration for a slide show in which the narration doesn’t quite coincide with the image and a pizza boy with some intellectual concepts that might actually make sense if he could just get the words out. Surely, one can see the fun in that. But Bart DeLorenzo – to extend the metaphor – doesn’t seem to have passed Culinary Arts 101. He hasn’t found the way for the audience to have as good a time as his actors seem to be having, and, sad to say, it’s because his actors – of the SpyAnts Theatre Company – aren’t doing much more than saying the lines and going through the motions. This may be professional theater in Los Angeles but it’s, as they used to say, Amateur Night in Dixie. To be fair, Ken Roht has choreographed some nifty dances and the actors do throw themselves into them with  reckless abandon. That’s exactly the ingredient Mee’s recipe required. It’s just that, well, not enough of it went into the oven. And what has come out is flat and tasteless.

 

picture - An Oak TreeThat is not the problem with An Oak Tree. Author Tim Crouch, who directed his own piece in collaboration with Karl James and a smith [yes, his name is a smith – editor], is a pretty canny trickster with a very clever gimmick. The play concerns a hypnotist with a secret (it’s not giving much away to say that he has accidentally killed a child), who, during his hypnosis act, brings up the father of the dead child as a volunteer from the audience.  Crouch himself plays the hypnotist with both an attractive shyness and a laser-sharp edginess, and the father is played at each performance by a different professional actor (male or female) who has not read the script beforehand, and he guides his/her way through the evening.  (At the performance I attended, the actor was Anne DeSalvo, who looks not a day older than she was when I saw her in Gemini more years ago than neither she nor I care to dwell upon, and who was quite game and, ultimately, quite moving.)   Eventually we have a hard time telling who did what, who was whom, and what, if anything, took place. Crouch has imagined a play without really having to write it.  We watch the manipulation with a certain fascination, to be sure, but there is a weird disconnection to the short evening, which heightens the sense that, at its core, it is a rather trivial, sentimental, and not fully explored exercise masquerading as complex theatre.

 

Later at my performance, an audience member, with a cell phone that was not shut off and which had a message on it that would not shut up, became an embarrassed part of the piece at its most crucial and supposedly revealing moment. However, in retrospect, it seemed like the only really honest moment of the evening, an antidote to the feeling that An Oak Tree is nothing more than a stunt. Still, the audience seemed bent on being conned (one even heard Pirandello’s name brought up as we exited from the theater). But Three Card Monte is Three Card Monte no matter what the critics and audiences want to believe.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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