How do you perform a two-person play when only one knows the script? It’s the stuff of actors’ nightmares: you find yourself onstage in a play where you have no idea what’s going on. And you know it is absolutely imperative that you cannot blow this. You’re going to have to make it up as you go along.
It was only a matter of time until a playwright figured out a way to put this nightmare on the stage—or, at least, as near to it as humanly possible. The result of one man’s brainstorm on the subject is Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree. In this play, one man—up until now, it has never been anyone but the playwright himself—plays a pub-performing hypnotist: 41, Cockney, self-assured, well dressed and, usually, highly in control. The other person in the play almost has to be an actor, but not necessarily; you see, until the second person is called up to the stage, (s)he has neither seen nor read the play.
You see immediately the seeming perversity of the situation. How do we as viewers take in this seeming conundrum? Just how are they going to pull this off? The Hypnotist assures us that he will guide both his partner and us through this little exercise, and provides that person—man or woman doesn’t matter—with a listening device, an earphone. Through this, the work that the person must do will be conveyed—by the Hypnotist. And between the two of them, the work will go forward to a successful conclusion. So we are told, anyway. And since we have come to Manbites Dog Theater to see An Oak Tree, we are assured that such will be the case. But we want to see how it’s done, to be sure.
Manbites Dog specifically requested permission from the playwright to perform this work in this particular timeslot in the theater’s 2006-07, 20th anniversary season. Since the playwright still tours the show, there was the question of whether such was even a possibility; but as Manbites Dog Theater has managed to pull off such spectacular coups before, we have been graced with permission to see this show as performed by someone other than Crouch himself. That someone is Dana Marks, managing director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and no small presence as a Triangle artist herself. The person who plays the other man in the play, The Father, is different every night. That is the given of the production. But the list of artists who agreed to perform for one night each in this work reads like a Who’s Who of Triangle talent. There is not a person on the list whose name has not appeared many times in programs around the Triangle. The night you attend, you will see the performer playing The Father for the first and only time that actor will ever perform the role. By definition, (s)he can never play it again. Last Saturday night, The Father was played by Little Green Pig artistic director Jay O’Berski.
So, just who is The Father? Whose father is he? And why is that relationship important? Before we appear at the theater, we are told only this: he is The Father of a six-year-old daughter who, three months before this night, was killed in an auto accident. The driver who struck the child and killed her is the Hypnotist. As The Father did not attend the inquest, the two have never before laid eyes on each other.
What we see onstage is an amazing amalgam of silent instruction, role-playing, flashback, and absurd irony. The Father learns most of what he is to do only seconds before we see him do it; oftentimes, it is as he is being instructed that he must do what he does. It takes a person exceptionally comfortable onstage, someone very willing to be led, almost wholly, by his partner. You may know that this pair pulled this play off almost flawlessly. And Dana Marks has taken this role to heart and pours herself into it, from a dyed-in-the-wool accent that flips on and off like a light switch, to a quick cameo as The Father’s wife before the play comes to an end. O’Berski was able to bring his 20 years of acting experience to this exercise, and he did an amazing job of something he had never even tried before. Alas, you will not be able to see him perform this role. He can never play it again.
Manbites Dog has given us some truly astonishing plays, both stunners and sleepers, in the 20 years they have been performing in Durham. But this one is unique. Imagine trying to steel yourself to perform a role you have never seen or heard and that, after tonight, you can never play it again. This is fascinating stuff, even outside the very tense and numbing subject matter. Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer stages this show with exceptional skill and has already employed a dozen actors just to bring this play through rehearsal. We as theater patrons are enthralled. Those of us who are also actors are intrigued. But now, having seen this play performed, we can never experience the character of The Father firsthand—unless, of course, it is in our dreams.
If you want to choose the night you attend by choosing the night that your favorite actor is playing The Father, the list is as follows: Katja Hill (March 14), David J. Berberian (March 15), Scott Robertson (March 16), Byron Jennings II (7 p.m. March 17), John Honeycutt (9:30 p.m. March 17), Mark Jeffrey Miller (March 18), Derrick Ivey (March 21), Carl Martin (March 22), Gregor McElvogue (March 23), Tamara Kissane (7 p.m. March 24), (and) Jeffrey Scott Detwiler (9:30 p.m. March 24).
Manbites Dog Theater presents An Oak Tree Wednesday-Friday, March 14-16 and 21-23, at 8:15 p.m.; Saturday, March 17 and 24, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and Sunday, March 18, at 3:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday-Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/183/.