An Oak Tree

What exactly is Tim Crouch's theatrical presentation—"play" being too limiting a word? Crouch (who wrote and who co-directs with Karl James and A. Smith) stars onstage with a different guest star at each performance of this two-hander. About five minutes before the start of the production, the guest actor—on this night Peter Gallagher—seats himself in the audience. He is wearing earbuds but seems able to hear ambient conversations. When Crouch appears onstage, the lights brighten. It may be our only indication that the show is starting.

The gist of the underlying "story" is that Crouch is playing a hypnotist at a London pub, while the guest actor—male or female—plays a man whose daughter died in an automobile accident. When does the "storytelling" begin? When does it end? What is the "role" of an actor—what character is he or she creating, and what else is that actor's function here?

Under his breath, or via the earbuds—we can read Crouch's lips—Crouch tells the actor to turn, stand here, say "yes," say "no." Seriously? The actor can't be trusted to turn into the light, to find his or her way around the stage, to feel when "yes" or "no" is the right answer? We get a chill over Crouch's despotism. And yet, in essence, that's the actor's job—just never demanded of him this way while the audience listens in to the direction. Were this improv, the second actor would be an exhilarated and empowered co-creator; here the actor is completely submissive, an emotional vessel over which puppetmeister Crouch has autocratic control. That's not to say Crouch doesn't have a veneer of kindness. He constantly reassures the actor and yet has brought him onstage apparently unrehearsed, unprepared, unaware—although who knows what was discussed during that hour before showtime. Crouch "prepares" before becoming his character. He takes his time doing so, and he does it with an unusual amount of flourishing. More commentary on theater?

Yes, it's fascinating to watch Gallagher create his character on the fly, call upon his well of emotions, cold read the script, feed Crouch's instructions back to him. Is this theater magic or theater madness? Crouch says in a single breath, "You're doing fine. Is this what you expected?" And neither Gallagher nor the audience is sure whether the expectations under scrutiny are his or his characters. "An Oak Tree" is an intimate, thought-provoking, electrifying event.

Presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Jan. 6–Feb. 14. Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (310) 477-2055.