An Unreview

We’ve had conversations around the theater about whether a real review can be written about AN OAK TREE. These conversations pivot on what a theater review is supposed to be. The arguments run broad and deep on all sides of that issue and probably aren’t worth getting into.

The key problem in writing a review is that there is no way to know exactly what is going to happen in AN OAK TREE. The cast has two actors but one of them changes every night. Can you really give readers a complete sense of what they are going to see when half the cast is unknown?

Our production has received two very well-considered and positive reviews by accomplished local critics Julinda Lewis and Jerry Williams. I admire their willingness to delve into a difficult task and produce cogent thoughts about what they experienced. I won’t argue whether they are “real” reviews or not. I’ll just add my facetious “unreview” to the chorus of responses.

Paradoxical Pairs

By David Timberline

Theater is fake. Characters aren’t people, they’re temporary constructions. Nothing that happens on stage persists.

Firehouse’s AN OAK TREE manages to both reinforce and subvert these assertions. The play presents a story wrapped in so many meta-theatrical mechanics that you may be left wondering if there actually is one. Or, it presents a deeply intense story in the only way that allows the impact of what happens to truly resonate.

Landon Nagel plays at least 5 characters -- a hypnotist; the wife of a bereaved father; a narrator and emcee for the evening; and a commentator who stands apart and reflects on the whole business from a distance.

A second actor who has never seen the script is enlisted to play the bereaved father coping with a devastating loss. The show is precisely scripted and the dialogue barely changes from night to night. Even so, I’ve seen the show twice and the impact on different nights was wildly divergent. I left the first performance appreciative and entertained and the second performance alternately bereft and energized.

The technical aspects of the production are spot-on -- Tennessee Dixon’s overall production design and Todd Labelle’s lights create a perfectly generic space that can be filled with whatever energy develops during the show. A wonderful sound design by Robbie Kinter is key as sonic cues create dramatically different moods.

Director Mark Lerman embraces the challenge of a work that is intensely self-conscious and supports Nagel in creating an environment that is warm and welcoming while also off-kilter and dangerous.

What is AN OAK TREE about? It is about coping with loss, the randomness of the universe, the power of human connection, and the ability of theater to be everything and nothing at the same time. You will go in not knowing who exactly you are going to see perform. By the end of the night, one (or both) of the actors will leave the stage changed, perhaps profoundly.

If you’re like me, you’ll leave the show with an unnerving, exciting preponderance of ideas to ruminate on. You may also be annoyed or impressed or transformed. Or maybe you’ll be convinced it was all a dream and you’ll wake up in 3…...2….....1.

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