HOTREVIEW.ORG - Hunter On-line Theater Review
Who am I? or, The Hidden Properties of Objects
By Caridad Svich

My Arm
By Tim Crouch
59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St.
Box office: (212) 279-4200


Tim Crouch is a British actor, writer and educator whose work explores the borders between education and visual art. He co-founded Public Parts Theatre and devised eight productions there with Julia Collins, including an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. His play for young audiences Shopping for Shoes was commissioned by the Royal National Theatre's Education Department. My Arm, a solo show and his first adult play, is an extraordinary demonstration of the theatrical power of inanimate objects. It is currently running at 59 East 59th Street as part of the "Brits Off Broadway 2004" series.

Originally presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2003 at the Traverse Theatre (with previous preview showings at the Hayward Gallery, the ICA and BAC in Britain, and at the Zipper Theatre in New York), this play is a welcome antidote to the brash, overproduced fare on so many U.S. stages. The story My Arm tells is deceptively simple: at age ten, a boy decides to live with one arm above his head for the rest of his life. His adult self reflects upon the effect this willful and rather pointless act has had on him and those around him over the subsequent thirty years. Abetted by film sequences commissioned from British artist Christian Dorley-Brown, and inanimate objects supplied by the audience at the start of the show, Crouch tells a 60-minute story of defiance, difference, vapidity, and essential loneliness.

Examining how modern art absorbs and consumes the individual, My Arm is a delightful and moving fictionalized confession. Fabricating the story of the stubborn boy who grows up to be used by the contemporary art world and its voguish obsession with "freakishness" and celebrity, Crouch shows us that this strange, sad boy is ultimately redeemed by art and not crucified by it. Spinning his tale with wit, whimsy, and deliberate playfulness, Crouch captivates his audience--as writer and performer--with his directness and seemingly improvisational style.

Similar in effect to the work of the London-based company Improbable Theatre, whose The Hanging Man played at BAM this season, and whose 70 Hill Lane was also in part a confessional piece, My Arm invites the audience to share a casual, communal experience. The body here is both witness and witnessed, as the young self seen as an action doll figure lives the story told by the adult human actor who manipulates it. The rebellious futility of the young boy's initial act -- a rebellion against suburban conformity and homogeneity -- is seen as the necessary un-necessary mark, or social marking, of an artist. But lest the story seem too high-minded, Crouch anchors it in the multiple reactions to the boy's act by his family, pet, psychiatrists, and the doyennes of a vampirish art world (all played by objects the audience has given him).

Animating these everyday objects, Crouch finds expression in the expressionless and gives meaning to the material things that carry so much of our emotional investment, whether we realize it or not. Not unlike Todd Haynes's early film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which was through-animated with Barbie dolls, My Arm asks us to recognize as an audience how the life of a play, and thus of a story, is often contained in the silent objects that inhabit its world. By asking his audience to empty their pockets and purses, and offer up, as it were, the cast for the evening's performance, Crouch also asks us to examine the stories our pockets contain. By becoming lost artifacts in Crouch's ambling story of loss and redemption, our daily, seemingly insignificant objects are given new emotive meaning, and in a rather spry way Crouch also asks us to reflect upon the meaning we impart to our daily casual interactions with others.

Using silence with rare eloquence, Crouch's evocative study of the uses and abuses of the self for the sake of art, and of how one boy is educated to his own nature, touches raw nerves in its audiences. The iconic objects meet the odd, iconic story head-on and with disarming grace. Crouch lets us be inside and outside the story at the same time. His storyteller's ability to keep us engaged, surprised, and even at times drifting along with him is delightful. Keeping himself, the presentation of the work, and the material honest, despite the fact that it's obviously a hyperbolic fiction, he reminds us of the beauty, elegance and simplicity of a well-told theatrical tale. My Arm is cousin to Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife. It shares with Wright's play a delicate and distinct obsession with the spirit world of material things, and with the question of how one can make art out of one's life, unwittingly or not. Disguised as a tall tale told small, My Arm is a quietly small tale told with a big heart. It has a refreshing lack of sentimentality but is braced with the tempered acknowledgment of sentiment: the power of feeling, and the importance of human connection. Embracing "fakery," Crouch forges a stage self worthy of our anguish, laughter, and concern. He already plans a follow-up, teasingly titled An Oak Tree, 1973.