an oak tree
Theatre is hypnosis. I'll go with that. It seems to be one of the implications of an oak tree. It's a productive way of thinking about the piece, anyway.
Two things about hypnosis. Firstly: someone being hypnotised needs to be willing. It's like a contract. The subject needs to make a decision, to sign the contract, to invest something in the exchange. It's similar to the suspension of disbelief a theatregoer must actively consent to. You can't *trick* a subject of hypnosis or an audience member without them giving you permission at a certain (even subconscious) level.
Secondly: public hypnosis - the gaudy TV "act like a chicken" stuff is different. Here, the permission usually comes as a result of being in the spotlight, being watched and judged by a crowd, and being part of a crowd too. There's an element of fear involved, and it takes an incredible amount of...something... to be the person who decides to break the illusion, to be the one person who refuses to play the game. In public hypnosis, to be the sole person not acting like a chicken is tantamount to speaking out loudly during an MTC show, or climbing onto the stage to question the proceedings.
So: an oak tree seemed to be playing on these ideas, but does so in such an incredibly controlled, restrained way that I felt vaguely disgusted at certain points. Tim Crouch has a masterful, iron-clad grip on its unfolding and - frankly - I didn't give him permission. I didn't trust him enough to allow him to dictate my response, and he seemed to be playing with his audience in precisely that way. From his first appearance he worked the crowd like the consummate showman, eliciting laughs not for doing anything entertaining but for mimicking the forms of performance which we've been trained to laugh at - his beaming smile, his self-deprecation, his pretenses at liveness and spontaneity. The audience becomes a Pavlovian dog.
And his "second actor" - a different local actor each night who arrives with no knowledge of the script or performer - is a hand puppet. I saw Kim Gygnell, a hugely experienced and wise stage performer, being fed lines and told how to respond to cues, commanded around the space and pretty much denied the use of his own talents. There was even a point at which Crouch had to correct him - twice! - for going off-script by reacting to a cue in a way that didn't fit Crouch's version of the show. Why is an actor being put in this position?
In a sense, an oak tree is about the power of suggestion and our control over our responses to the world we encounter, but Crouch as puppetmaster drains all of the liveness from the show and so brilliantly becomes the master hypnotist that there's no risk, no chance, and ultimately nothing at stake. The apparent drama (of a hypnotist confronted by the father of a child he killed while driving) was the biggest problem for me: I didn't sign that contract, I didn't suspend that disbelief, and so I didn't care.
At an early point in the show, Crouch as hypnotist-character tells us he's looking for volunteers from the audience to come up and be put under. A moment later Crouch-as-Crouch-character tells us that we are not really allowed to come up on stage, because we are playing an audience at a hypnotist's show. And so we stayed in our seats, acting like chickens. That's theatre.
Desert Island Dances
Wendy Houstoun's a beautiful dancer who plays with her audience by withholding a lot of that for most of this solo piece. It's a slow, quiet minimal rumination on the movements she's been given over her life so far, choreographed and otherwise. There's a lot of talking to the audience, seemingly off-the-cuff thoughts on whatever comes to mind, though in reality there's a particular structure and considered progression to the work. It's quite challenging in its reticence - in the way talk fills a void without necessarily giving it substance. It's certainly not a piece for lovers of pure dance, given that there isn't a huge amount of actual dancing going on. In fact, it's only near the end, when she repeats earlier movements and credits them to their originators, that I noticed how much more choreography had been going on in understated, non-showy ways. It's an interesting show, but not one of great magic and wonder. I'm looking forward to Houstoun's Happy Hour as a contrast to this piece.
The Big Game
The only thing sweeter than the smell of success is the acrid stench of failure, especially in the form of a little kid who has just lost a competitive game in front of hundreds of strangers. That's The Big Game, really, in which six kids pulled from the audience compete on a giant boardgame as hordes watch and cheer them on. A dice is rolled and they advance around the space, landing on spots that dictate activities (races, dances, drawing, pulling faces etc). Their success of failure is determined by three clowning Game Masters in an apparently arbitrary fashion, and the first to finish a complete circuit wins.
Which means we're left with five losers. I don't mean to get all Montessori on you here, but I couldn't help but be bemused by the principles of competition and judgement at play in this show. I've heard somewhere that The Big Game was partly meant to explore the way that chance and outside forces play such a large part in our life, and I agree that "winning" isn't always about ability or determination. Life is full of disappointments that are beyond our control. But geez, can't we give the kids a few more years before they have to face that?
I know kids play at competitive games all the time and that losing is a common experience. I suppose it was just the face of that kid I watched lose and walk off the board clearly upset. Maybe I was that kid once, and god forbid that little goober ever ends up anything like me! LOL!
The frustration at the heart of Chunky Move's new show is deliberate, provocative and well-intentioned - the audience is split in half, each side watching one side of a curtain through which performers move. One half begins by watching an abstract dance performed by Stephanie Lake, the other witnesses a forum on performance by Brian Lipson, Vincent Crowley, Antony Hamilton, Byron Perry, Lee Searle and Michelle Heaven. Gradually the two worlds overlap as performers move between the spaces, and of course you're constantly aware that you're missing out on half of the activity going on.
There's a much bigger philosophical argument embedded in this structure and it's both intellectually fascinating and experientially frustrating - but at the same time, what you are watching is almost always wonderful in its own right. My side was the more talky side with some absolutely stunning performances from Hamilton especially, but knowing that there is an elsewhere - a place where something better *might* be happening - put me in a thrilling bind. What if *this* is better? What if *that* is? And could I ever know anyway? Great work, great work.
Exercises in Happiness
A simple premise executed well. The two artists of Panther have filled an ARI-style gallery space with a bunch of exercises for attendees to carry out, rating their happiness levels along the way. A spot of gardening, piddling around on an electric guitar, having a conversation over trifle, that kind of thing. It's an easy-breezy affair that I enjoyed thoroughly, and had me thinking in a gentle, distracted way about my moment-by-moment responses to all kinds of experiences - I loved the gardening until I actually began to do it, and worried that I was killing some flowers I was attempting to plant.
My only complaint here (and it's not really a complaint) is that it could have been bigger - there are maybe 20 or so exercises and I spent about an hour and a half there, but I would gladly have spent a whole day in a space the size of the Exhibition Buildings, wandering among hundreds and hundreds of little, everyday activities. So yeah, this is clearly a good piece.