If you plan to see Theatre Exile’s Philly premiere of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, it’d be good for you to walk in knowing as much about the script as one member of its two-person cast knows: nothing.
It’s also worthwhile to know a few things, at least. Pearce Bunting stars as the Hypnotist in Crouch’s nonlinear 70-minute metatheatrical meditation on grief. A different actor who knows nothing about the script pairs with him for each night of the 16-show run following opening night.
The February 20, 2019, opening welcomed Grace Gonglewski—who, I should mention, taught me a course in college back when I was earning my bachelor’s degree in theater. Her heart-cracking vulnerability onstage made her a natural choice for opening night, but with performers including Evan Jonigkeit, Emmanuelle Delpech, Makoto Hirano, Jennifer Kidwell, John Jarboe, and many more Philly favorites slated to appear throughout the run, you’re in good hands on any night.
Between explanations to the audience and to the Hypnotist’s co-star, the assembling of various scripts on clipboards, Bunting working his own mic via a floor paddle, and the story’s unusual, self-conscious thread, the show can be a challenging experience. But director Joe Canuso weaves the pieces together with the raw suspense of mutual discovery between actor and audience.
Until the show dives deeper, Bunting nails smarmy malice while delivering a spot-on satire of every Renaissance Faire or teambuilding/corporate-event mentalist you’ve ever seen. He’s helped by composer and sound designer Michael Kiley’s perfectly obnoxious electronic calliope. Costume designer Katherine Fritz also hits just the right note with the Hypnotist’s cheap-looking gold-and-black brocade vest and shiny black shirt.
On opening night, Gonglewski (in black pants, black shoes with a low-heeled wedge, a rose-colored wraparound sweater, and reading glasses perched on her head) radiated an instant physical and emotional commitment. Tears shone on her cheeks, and she rested her left hand on the right side of her chest in a self-soothing cradle anyone who has run out of comfort from external sources will recognize.
Worlds of grief
Crouch’s short but multifaceted script challenges both actors and audience to keep up, examining the dissociations, delusions, projections, and odd humiliations of grief and its aftermath. By coincidence, the show hit at a rough time for me: a heavy week marking the 17-year anniversary of the accidental death of a close childhood friend. We were in boarding school together at the time.
I thought I was fine when I left Theatre Exile’s lobby, but then I sent my date home early and walked the rest of the way back to my house in the dark, slushy rain. Lines from the play pinged in my head while I thought about my friend, who’s still so vivid in my mind that I sometimes forget he never made it into adulthood with me. Tears poured down my face while raindrops quivered on the edge of my raincoat’s hood, and I thought about the many inner and outer worlds of grief.
A welcoming relaunch
An Oak Tree is also a homecoming for Theatre Exile (check out our look at the space). The almost-completed theater resides in the basement of a new development at 13th and Reed streets. It’s a well-conceived venue, with an elevator the company promises will be up and running soon, a ramp into the house, ADA-compliant gender-neutral restrooms, and space for flexible, roomy seating. As it settles into its new home, it’s good to see Theatre Exile joining companies like InterAct to lead the way in accessible and inclusive theater spaces.
What, When, Where
An Oak Tree. By Tim Crouch, directed by Joe Canuso. February 14 through March 10, 2019, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org.
Theatre Exile is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.