An Oak Tree

Tim Crouch
Barrow Street Theatre, New York
(2007)

Publicity graphic

Visitors to Tate Modern in London may well have been baffled by Michael Craig Martin's An Oak Tree. Rather than a figurative piece portraying the apparent subject, it features a glass of water sitting on a shelf with an explanation that this is an oak tree.

Tim Crouch is also someone who likes to baffle audiences as he did in his last work, My Arm. This time around, his gimmick - or masterstroke depending on one's view - is to write a two-hander in which he plays opposite guest stars whom he only meets and briefs an hour before the performance.

In Britain, starting off at the Traverse in Edinburgh, guests included Mark Ravenhill, Roger Lloyd Pack and Christopher Eccleston. Since the play reached Barrow Street, the subsidiary part has been played by Laurie Anderson, Frances McDormand and Mike Myers amongst others.

On this occasion, Crouch performs with Australian actor Mark Saturno. The latter appears in casual dress with some earphones hanging from his sweater.

The writer, with his ultra relaxed delivery and cheesy grin, briefs us all, including his partner, on what to expect. Then, with many diversions he launches into a tale of the death in a car accident of a little girl called Claire.

For the most part, Crouch in a mesmerising waistcoat, part Van Gogh, part Bridget Riley, plays the hypnotist who killed her, while Saturno is the dead child's grieving father, a man who receives great comfort from imagining that an oak tree is the reincarnation of Claire.

The whole is accompanied by an interesting soundscape featuring Carmina Burana, Bach's Goldberg Variations and hypnotic hip hop. The experience tests us with a variety of techniques including whispered instructions, lengthy sections read from scripts and a kind of human ventriloquism using the earphones.

As with the artwork, this play is far more concerned with an exploration of form than content. It looks at the relationships between family members and their interaction with the killer but also that between a performer and his new recruit. Saturno acquits himself well in awkward circumstances, but then that is what actors are supposed to do.

This 75 minute event combines comedy with tragedy and ultimately probably says more about Tim Crouch than his guest or ostensible subject. He seems to enjoy self-promotion as well as story-telling but above all, like Michael Craig Martin, bafflement seems to be his primary goal.

This oddity is coming to Soho in the spring, so Londoners will have a chance to see some celebs and decide for themselves whether the self-appointed Emperor is wearing his new clothes or, like the hypnotist's subject, just embarrassing himself.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher