An Oak Tree and
bobrauschenbergamerica – Los Angeles Theater Review
THE OLD SHELL GAME
by Harvey Perr
published January 31, 2010
now playing in Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theater
through February 14
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
Let 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.
That 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