By Tim Crouch
At The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: RedTheater.org; $20-$22. Runs through: Dec. 9
Red Theater's An Oak Tree opens with one actor announcing the concept of the performance.
Gage Wallace, also known as The Hypnotist, explains that he has memorized and rehearsed the play. The second actor invited onto the stage has never attended a single rehearsal or even read the script. At each performance, the second actor will be played by a different Chicago artist. Such high-wire theatricality is a staple for Red Theater, but its deployment in one of the Athenaeum Theatre's small studio spaces makes for an intimate and quizzical experience.
The opening-night performance saw Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as the second performer. Wallace informed Gonzalez-Cadel that she was playing the father of a little girl who died in a car accident, in which Wallace was the driver. Gonzalez-Cruz has appeared during Wallace's hypnotist show, and is looking for a reckoning.
Director Jeremy Aluma, who also worked with Red on The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, is a good match for Tim Crouch's discursive script. Bits of dialogue that involve the actors speaking in character are interspersed with moments where the second actor questions motives and emotions and asks basic script questions one might have in a rehearsal. Aluma keeps Wallace confident but light, having him simply and humorously engage his scene partner with clear encouragement about a tough exercise. Aluma keeps the staging simple, with Wallace pantomining other characters experiencing hypnosis onstage, and with overturned chairs forming the obstacles that pop up between the characters. A piano stool comes to mean far more than it initially seems by play's end.
Wallace has a good-natured way about him, which makes him a safe guide for the evening, as he asks Gonzalez-Cadel to repeat dialogue he proclaims, or asks his scene partner to take a seat or stand to the side. Gonzalez-Cadel was open and strong in their choices during the performance, no easy feat when one doesn't know what emotional experiences will be had during an evening. One of the curious things about this performance piece is that Wallace whispers many directions to the second actor, so the audience isn't actually privy to the full experience being shared. In some ways, we are left in the dark a bit about the process, just as we would be during the alchemy of a more traditional performance. And that confuses the central metaphor about belief and creation a bit.
Set designer Alex Casillas frames the stage with red curtains, giving the show a vaudeville, punchy feel, while Abby Beggs' lights and John Nichols III's sound generate an ethereal series of flashbacks. If the production seems half-planned and half-spontaneous, and we must jump between the two, it remains worth the leap.