A Dream Play
nytheatre.com review by Edward Elefterion
November 4, 2007
August Strindberg's A Dream Play is a daunting challenge for any company daring enough to attempt it. It employs 63 characters, a multitude of settings (most of which are used for only a few minutes), and mixes naturalistic, expressionistic, and surrealistic dialogue to create a world that imitates the impenetrable yet emotionally logical fabric of a dream. Critics and scholars consider A Dream Play to be Strindberg's masterpiece largely because of its immense scope and its entirely unique structure that thwarts definitive analysis yet somehow works. Full disclosure: I agree with Sean O'Casey, the Irish playwright most famous for Juno and the Paycock, "Strindberg, Strindberg, Strindberg... the greatest of them all." And this is exactly why, when I saw that someone was actually mounting the notoriously unmountable Dream Play, I rushed to see it.
The plot is simple enough: the Daughter of the Gods journeys to Earth to find out why humans find their lives so miserable, and in doing so she learns first-hand how hard it is to live without hurting oneself and others. At one point she says (I'm paraphrasing): "They're kind and good by themselves, but get them together and they become demons."
Though I've never seen A Dream Play before, I've heard about three-plus hour productions and so was prepared for a long afternoon. Dalliance Theater's production is a tidy 90 minutes and intelligently approaches the play with simplicity, favoring the rich text over the pitfall of trying to literally represent what it describes. Using nine actors, numerous yet fluid costume accessories rather than entire wardrobe changes, creative use of fabric, solid ensemble playing, and an obvious respect for Strindberg's intentions (the Author's Preface from 1901 is printed in the program), Dalliance Theater effortlessly presents this potentially confusing play with all the lucidity and surprising inevitability of a dream. From the Author's Preface: "Time and space do not exist; the imagination spins, weaving new patterns on a flimsy basis of reality: a mixture of memories, experiences, free associations, absurdities and improvisations." Director Andy Ottoson and his agile ensemble demonstrate that they clearly understand what Strindberg was aiming for.
In fact, the most impressive aspect of this production is that it delivers Strindberg's play so clearly. I left feeling that I had really experienced the play and understood it on various levels. This is no small achievement as the text does not depend on the cause-and-effect structure that seemingly organizes our lives and that theatre traditionally imitates. Also no small achievement is how Ottoson (who also did the adaptation) and the fine cast really bring out the humor in the writing. Strindberg has a reputation for dreary angst, usually because of lesser productions that do not see or value the humor the way that this one clearly does.
The uniformly strong and focused ensemble remains on stage for the entire performance: sometimes changing costume pieces, sometimes contributing to the setting, sometimes simply watching the scene in progress. The lighting is largely unfocused, due mainly to the very limited plot and capacity of the equipment. But lighting designer Matt Garrett manages to provide suggestions towards moods that were enough to guide my imagination. The informal costumes of leotards, trousers, and everyday button-down and t-shirts are accessorized effectively by Jameson Eaton, who resisted the temptation to bog down this production with unnecessary changes and details that would have taken longer to don than actually wear. And Ottoson's direction is brisk and unencumbered, keeping the focus squarely on the text and making good sense of it.
If you've ever been interested in Strindberg or curious about what A Dream Play might be like on stage, then I highly recommend checking out Dalliance Theater's entertaining and lucid production. You'll have the rare opportunity to experience the deep compassion and humor of this seminal play and see a very clear rendering of it without any bells and whistles that might otherwise cloud up what are already potentially murky waters.