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A Dream Play
Anyone who has seen a play directed by Eric Hill will recognize his distinctive directorial touch in this strikingly beautiful production of August Strindberg's A Dream Play. Mr. Hill's spectacularly inventive visual approach to adapting and directing and his penchant for highly stylized performances seem made to order for the dreamlike reality of this expressionistic drama. If Strindberg could come back to earth like his main character, I think he would give Hill and his splendid actors and designers a standing ovation.
The play is not as well known or frequently produced as such naturalistic psychological dramas as The Father and Miss Julie. Yet, according to a 1907 diary entry on the day A Dream Play was first performed it was his most beloved play, "the child of my greatest pain". Born out of Strindberg's despair over the collapse of his marriage to actress Harriet Bosse, it led the author to the conclusion that life is an illusion that never fulfills our dream.
Though Hill is a director whose work epitomizes the phrase "cutting edge", he is well aware of the need to make what he does accessible to his audience. In this production, he eases the audience into the unconventional fantasy land where all perception of time and space is suspended with a clever framing device. Without altering the script's essence, he introduces Agnes, a contemporary woman who is in the middle of what is obviously a mental breakdown (similar to Strindberg's period of despair during which he wrote the play). The insistent ringing of a telephone serves as prologue and epilogue.
That ringing phone causes a window of Agnes's mind to spring open. We see flashes of images which will return when she is propelled into the walking dream-nightmare that constitutes the play's action. The God Indra's daughter, the main character, who descends to earth and becomes caught up in the sufferings and cruelties of mankind, becomes the dreaming Agnes's inner voice and spiritual guide. As the window that flies open in Agnes's mind is mirrored by the windows and doors of the back panel of Yoshinori Tanokura's stark but affecting and versatile set, so the spiritual twinship of the two characters is reflected in their carefully orchestrated look-alike appearance and movements.
Besides fitting the action of the play within the space of time that exists between those two jarring rings of the telephone, the adapter-director has also streamlined the text that often runs close to three hours to an intermissionless 90 minutes. He uses just a dozen actors to play several of the more than two dozen characters (the original script called for a cast of 46), all dominated by the dreamer (Agnes) through whose consciousness they materialize.
Ann Mahoney as Agnes and Tara Franklin as Indra's daughter are exquisitely and gracefully in synch. Greg Keller and James Barry, who last appeared on this same stage as two young 1980s rebels without a cause (This Is Our Youth), plumb new depths in quite different roles -- Keller as the ever hopeful Officer who waits year after year for the never seen Miss Victoria; Barry as the play's Poet who, his feet literally planted in a clay pot asks "How can a son of mortal clay find words luminous, pure and airy enough to rise from the earth"? Craig Baldwin is convincingly pessimistic as an ill-fated Lawyer.
Individually, and in ensemble scenes, the entire cast makes this strange phantasmagoria a mesmerizing experience. Some of the dream episodes are particularly memorable; for example, the embittered, dying mother in a wheelchair and the uniformed maid who compulsively tries to paste up all the cracks in the wall (our lives?). The scenes with the chorus of Deans (of medicine, law, theology, philosophy), all with fake hooked noses à la Groucho Marx, are not only eye popping but hilarious.
The inventive use of masks, makeup and choreography heightens the visual impact of the production throughout.
In the end we meet yet another character not in the text -- a young boy who walks into the room to which Agnes has returned, a silent and hopeful reminder that out of our pain (e.g. childbirth) miracles can emerge. The actor playing the boy is named Alexander Hill (a real life example of an apple blossoming from the directorial branch?).
Despite the ingenious twenty-first century framework and the paring down of text and characters, the author's attempt to find answers from a mix of theologies makes this is a strange and often confusing play. But, like any vivid dream, it is guaranteed to linger in your mind long after you leave the theater.