Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2001
As a critic and student of the theatre, I applaud the Berkshire Theatre Festival for their bold choice of play. Eric Hill has really gone to town with a talented group of young performers and a stellar design team consisting of Yoshinori Tanokura (sets), Olivera Gajic (costumes), Matthew E. Adelson (lighting), and Jason A. Tratta (sound). The result is thought provoking and beautiful to watch. Speaking as a theatre historian, it is fascinating to see what a team of young artists can and will do with this play in its centennial year.
Strindberg wrote A Dream Play in the autumn of 1901, although it wasn’t publicly performed until 1907. At the time of the writing, Strindberg had recently married, but his dream of marital happiness was momentarily crushed when his bride left home “forever.” Strindberg suffered alone for forty days, reaching the conclusion that life is an illusion that never fulfills our dreams. He had also recently survived several nervous breakdowns, which led him to question the concepts of reality and fantasy, waking consciousness and dreaming consciousness which are explored in this play which Strindberg called “the child of my greatest pain.” That he was fascinated with bringing the dream world to the stage comes as no surprise, neither does the fact that his dream world is wracked with sorrow, despair, and depression. Hill and company generate many more laughs than Strindberg ever envisioned, which is well because a nightmare played in real time for 90 minutes, is a bit much to bear.
What Hill and his team have done particularly well is give this production a true dream-like quality. Hill has envisioned the play as a waking dream that takes place in the mind of the character of Agnes in between two rings of the telephone which interrupts her slumber. I know I have had those long, detailed, split-second dreams that seem to take forever but in reality occur during the time it takes your brain to recognize a sound. I found the opening moments, where the entire cast moved silently on and off of the stage during brief black-outs so that every time the lights came up a whole new vision of unconscious chaos was revealed. After that what Hill and company did was so much more interesting than what Strindberg wrote, that I wished we could just dispense with the words and get on with the imagery.
I wish I had liked Ann Mahoney better as Agnes. Strindberg did not indicate who the dreamer was, and Hill has decided to make this Agnes’ dream, and to separate her from the character of Indra?s daughter, played by the lovely Tara Franklin. Mahoney has small beady eyes and a permanently furrowed brow. Her range of facial expressions was so much smaller than that of Franklin as her doppelganger, that you wondered why the casting had not been reversed.
James Barry, who blew me away as Dennis in This Is Our Youth last month at the Unicorn, did it again in this production as the Poet. This was such a completely different role that my heart rejoiced to witness the range of this young man, who has yet to receive his undergraduate degree. In contrast, I was much less impressed with Greg Keller, who showed his range to be much narrower than I had hoped by merely echoing his teenaged stoner routine from This Is Our Youth. Strindberg doesn?t really write for teenaged stoners, and Keller hasn?t been a teenager for many years.
Joshua Tussin and Kenajuan Bentley used their lithe bodies to create a range of eerie and hilarious characters. Bentley, as the Quarantine Master, clad only in a flesh-colored dance belt, some red fringe, red cowboy boots, and a ten-gallon hat, was a real highlight of the evening as he boogied down in Dire Straits. But he was equally entertaining as a silent dream figure whose wardrobe consisted of a brown tutu skirt. Tussin spent a quite some time moving in a languid, liquid manner dressed in a black business suit and bowler hat with a half-filled bottle of liquor balanced on his head. I often discovered that I had to look twice to discover that it was Tussin assaying yet another small but memorable role, because he changed, chameleon like, from moment to moment.
I said before how beautiful this production is to look at, and I will say it again. The design team is really an integral member of the cast in this show because everything they do supports the dream world Strindberg, Hill and the actors are striving to create. They have come up with some wondrous visuals. They sure reminded me of my dreams, and, unless I am nuttier than I previously thought, they will remind you of yours too.
A Dream Play runs through August 12 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs 90 minutes without an intermission.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001