An attempt at a clever conceit, Red Theater’s An Oak Tree pairs two actors, one who has rehearsed the script (an engaging Gage Wallace), and another who has never seen the material before. The second actor changes with every performance; I saw the talented Cruz Gonzalez-Citadel. The setup, opening with a recording of “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, implies dramatic risk; that the visiting actor is flying without a safety net opens up the possibility for surprising discoveries or agonizing mistakes. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort materializes.
Director Jeremy Aluma guides Wallace as he feeds lines to Gonzalez-Cadel, explicitly telling her what to say in front of the audience or whispering directions to her through a microphone that feeds to headphones she is wearing. Initially this is fascinating, leaving one wondering, at first breathlessly, then impatiently, when Gonzalez-Citadel will be allowed to break free and improvise her own responses. Sadly, this moment never comes. Instead Wallace hands her the written script. This is not a collaboration; it is a benevolent dictatorship of a staged reading.
An interrogation of themes of control reminiscent of the 2010 movie Inception, An Oak Tree is not fully self-aware. The outside optics of Wallace directing a guest actor who has no agency of his or her own for every. single. line. of an entire play painfully and unintentionally hearkens back to the famous, deliciously terror-inducing 1961 Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” where a monstrous spoiled child with godlike magical powers terrorizes everyone in his town by telling them what to do—or else. v