It's an actor's nightmare. To go onstage completely unprepared, performing a big role and not knowing your lines, not even knowing what the play is about.
Drew DeCaro did just that on Sunday in An Oak Tree, a two-person play by Tim Crouch at the Gorilla Theatre. The script calls for one character to be portrayed by a different actor in every performance. The actor knows nothing about the play.
"It's was a really odd feeling to just walk into this thing, like stepping off a diving board," said DeCaro, who played a father whose 12-year-old daughter died in a car accident. The other character is a stage hypnotist, who was the driver of the car and inadvertently calls the father out of the audience to be in his act.
DeCaro is one of a dozen actors cast to play the father opposite Steve Mountan, who gives a richly theatrical performance as the hypnotist. Mountan leads his co-stars through the play by prompting answers, handing them pages of the script and sometimes feeding them lines through a wireless microphone up his sleeve that the actors hear through an earpiece.
"Part of the appeal is the novelty of seeing the process of an actor creating a character on the spot," director Ami Sallee Corley said. "It's all about the freshness, the spontaneity of the actors."
An Oak Tree, which had four performances — and four different actors, men and women, playing the father — this past weekend, ushers in a period of unusually edgy theater in the Tampa Bay area. Three other productions in September are Florida premieres:
Blackbird, a drama by David Harrower about a pedophile and his victim 15 years later, by Jobsite Theater; The Wild Party, a raffish musical by Michael John LaChiusa, staged by a new company, freeFall Theatre; and the American Stage production of By the Waters of Babylon by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan.
Adding to the experimental mix is American Stage's new late-night series that opens with Eve Ensler's feminist readings The Vagina Monologues.
Crouch wrote An Oak Tree for himself to perform as the hypnotist, and he did it in New York with famous actors such as Mike Myers, Joan Allen, Frances McDormand and Maura Tierney. Gorilla has enlisted some of the bay area's best actors to step into the part of the father with the support of Mountan, who makes a bedazzling impression as a crazed figure in an old-fashioned swallowtail coat, introducing the hypnotist's act, set in a pub, to a bombastic chorus from Carmina Burana.
Although the confrontation between the father and the man who drove the car that killed his daughter has the harrowing intensity of a psychodrama at times, the play also has an elegaic quality. In the two performances I saw — with DeCaro Sunday and Emilia Sargent Thursday — the father did not seem to hold the hypnotist particularly responsible for the accident.
A powerful scene came two-thirds of the way through the short play, performed without intermission, in a soliloquy by the grieving father. His response to the loss of his daughter was to transform her into an oak tree by the road. "I scooped up the properties of Claire and changed the physical substance of the tree into that of my daughter," he said.
Sargent's soliloquy was an expression of eloquent sadness, informed by her life offstage as the mother of two girls. "It's a dangerous place for a mother to go because it's so visceral," she said afterward.
DeCaro, on the other hand, gave a more introspective performance of the soliloquy. "I was actually scared after a certain point," he said. "I started to feel what it was like to be broken, to be this broken fellow."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.