Dream Play at Berkshire Theatre Festival

July 19, 2001 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall

Dreams have fascinated playwrights for centuries. As Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest reminds us, “We are such things as dreams are made of” and even novelist James Joyce resorted to theatre magic and staging in his Circe chapter in Ulysses.

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The Dream Play was written in l901 by August Strindberg, the Swedish dramatist whose influence in the 20th century has been strong on major American playwrights as different as O’Neill and Williams.

His magnificent, rarely staged play is being given a luminous production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s‘s Unicorn Theatre under the magical direction of Eric Hill.

[adsense]Strindberg points out, in a preface, that “In dreams, time and space do not exist…the characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, solidify, diffuse, clarify. But one consciousness reigns above them all – that of the dreamer.”

The play has a tumbled sense of pattern and plot and despite shifting of time and space and character is not hard to follow. In Strindberg’s text (and in Hill’s production), it opens with the Daughter of Indra descending to earth to see how humankind is faring.

There, she assumes the role of Agnes, a woman who works to save an Officer, marries a Lawyer, bears a child, meets a poet, suffers for and with others and finally returns to heaven with the realization that, “It is not easy to be human.”

In this illuminating production, Hill has taken words from Strindberg’s preface that suggest characters split. Instead of having Indra’s daughter become Agnes, she moves beside her, both identically dressed and looking surprisingly alike. Often their gracefully choreographed movement echoes or mirrors each other’s.

Hill makes this possible by adding no lines to Strindberg’s script but by providing a pantomimed realistic frame in which the dream can logically, for all its fantasy, unfold in our own everyday world.

The play thus opens on a ringing telephone in an ordinary room. It is a loud, penetrating shrill ring which Agnes, a mentally disturbed woman in a bathrobe, approaches, does not answer, avoids answering, takes a tea cup, crosses the room, drops and breaks the cup, lies groping for the broken pieces as the unanswered phone rings on and brief nightmare tableaus of fantasy flash a moment only to disappear.

Then Strindberg’s dialogue and the dream fantasy as Agnes gropes on the floor can begin. A door high on the back wall can open and the Daughter of Indra can appear, ready to leave the heavens and share humans’ lot, find out why they complain. She sinks to Agnes’ side and becomes her double, who now with robe removed wears an identical costume.

Although the scenes that follow are at times fantastic, they become the ones in Agnes’ dream in those brief seconds that elapse as the unanswered phone rings and rings. And the phone still rings at the play’s end, bringing us back to the 21st century where Agnes in her robe must or must not answer it.

This a strong play, a strange play, and a relevant play.

The actors are superb, the costumes ingenious, the timing impeccable, the lighting pinpoint-perfect. Strindberg’s cast lists fifty roles; in Hill’s production, twelve unusually talented actors handle all the roles, sliding from one to another with dexterity.

Hill has skillfully cut the three act play to a one act that plays in less than ninety minutes without a break. It seems shorter. And it successfully delivers Strindberg’s message clearly and dynamically.

The simple set, a gray back wall with multiple doors at various levels, easily becomes any needed locale. And although one door becomes another, we all yearn with the actors to know what lies behind the unopened door, the door behind which there is nothing – or everything. The very ambiguity of Strindberg’s ending is expressed by this production in which he groped for the answer to humankind’s search for meaning in a world of suffering and disappointment.

During the fantastic journey the mind of Agnes takes, the play evokes various attempts at answers, drawn from the Old Testament, Christianity, and Asian beliefs.

In Strindberg’s stage direction, the giant flower that has been growing from the top of the growing castle – a castle that grows and grows despite being mired in filth – that flower suddenly bursts into glorious bloom. This moment seems to be evoked poignantly by Agnes, back on the floor reaching for the fallen cup where, just beyond the reach of her fingers, a plant blooms.

Ann Mahoney is an enchanting and poignant Agnes as is Tara Franklin as Indra’s daughter. Their scenes together are gracefu, almost danced, beautifully timed.

As Officer, Greg Keller brings an open-faced young hopefulness into a role that spans the play’s plot. Craig Baldwin’s defeated and pessimistic lawyer, doomed to crucifixion, is always believable and dynamic. Kenajuan Bentley is outstanding in hallucinatory scenes taking on a number of exotic roles.

James Barry, the poet, literally with his feet in the earth’s clay, can show Agnes that though much fails, boats that leave Fair Haven do not inevitably end up at Foul Strand and that if one listens to the murmur of a seashell one can hear other cries than those of despair.

Indra’s Daughter, back in the heavens, her glorious robes stained by her sojourn on the third planet, can still grieve “that it is difficult to be a human being” and that perhaps we need help. And below in the kitchen the phone can stop ringing.

This play is an unusal opportunity for not just the “special” audience. Although at times, just as in our own dreams we feel lost or temporarily confused, at others we can be elated as we watch this play to feel that Strindberg and Hill have also experienced our deepest concerns and here share them with us.

Reba Herman as Christine in a tiny scene insists on pasting up the cracks that haunt us, that well-meaning people insist must be filled but which we find suffocating. The child that walks into the kitchen (a character added by Hill) may remind us that the agony of the birth is long forgotten and that miracle grows from suffering.

This play is an experience of moving deftly, if at times confusingly – through the seconds of time that elapse between the rings of a phone that we cross (or do not cross) the kitchen to answer (or not answer). It is very applicable to 2001 and the world in which we very vulnerable humans seek the right door.

The Einstein Project at Berkshire Theatre Festival

August 4, 2000 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall

Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of The Einstein Project would have delighted William Butler Yeats, who, a century ago, advocated a kind of total theatre uniting all the arts-voice, dance, text and art (not to be confused with “scenery”). Yeats was inspired by the intense simplicity of the Japanese Noh theatre, and so it is interesting that Eric Hill, whose directorial hand is strongly present in this work, also looks often to Japan.

Yeats never made it to Japan; having Ezra Pound as a secretary was as close as he got. Hill has, though, and The Einstein Project bears traces of his insights and study. It is very much a collaboration of all the theatre’s arts. Co-written by Paul D Andrea and Jon Klein, it is has been co-directed by Hill and Oliver Butler, with dance choreographed by Isadora Wolfe. Lighting by Melissa McLearn and sound by Jason A Tratta provide all the setting the play needs.

This is a play of many short scenes that flow effortlessly into each other. Place is suggested rather than defined, shifting from Germany to Switzerland to America; time is also fluid, beginning in l945 but cutting backwards and forwards. Characters live and die in the time warps.

Central to all is Einstein, physicist and man, German and Jew. He leaves Germany for America where, still insisting he is a pacifist, he writes the famous letter to Roosevelt that unleashes the horrors of Hiroshima. The play probes his conscience, exposes its frailties, lays bear his cruelty and inability to act towards others with love and compassion. He “thrives on ice” and “never talks as a friend.”

This man’s family, his country, are “outside”. He believes in “tracking the mind of God” but cannot look with pity into the human heart of his son. The play attempts to go beyond the stereotypical image of the scientific genius who at age 42 won the Nobel prize and give us the flawed and contradictory being that he was. In doing so it deals with scenes of shattering emotional intensity. The bomb of l945 destroyed all it touched and “only shadows were left behind.”

The play opens with the bomb. An orderly spaced group of humans stand staring upwards; they gradually, slow motion retreat, pull inward, circle and become a huddled ball in the center of the stage to be flung distortedly outwards, upwards, grotesquely mangled in slow motion, finally to stagger or be carried from sight. It is nightmare and dream.

The next scene has Einstein in Switzerland with his son Edward. They are in a boat, beautifully evoked by a stout rope and billowing white cloth flapped by two actors. In this scene Einstein’s unnecessary cruelty to the child is shattering as he tries to force him to understand a mathematical principal concerning the counting of his fingers.

Baffling the child, he insists the answer must be eleven; the rebuked child in dismay holds up his two hands fighting for his own answer of ten. Lines from this scene will occur later with the child, grown to a young man of 20, is in a strait-jacket, totally mad and still groping for the answer. One cannot help but fault Einstein’s lack of compassion in his human relationships.

Tommy Shrider gives a virtuoso performance as he delves into the character of the conflicted man that Einstein was. He reveals the dark underside of a man few people, perhaps Einstein himself, ever knew. As his son Edward, Amanda Byron, is especially moving. The scenes in which she appears are memorable.

The tightly knit cast in this play move, at times in slow motion, though scene after scene-Einstein’s former German colleagues as prisoners of war in England disbelieving the bombing news on the radio; his daughter Clara, (hauntingly played by Jennifer Elder-Chace) picnicking and dying; his fellow-scientist Werner Heisenberg (James Barry) exhibiting the compassion and conscience that Einstein lacks.

At times the scenes, strong in themselves, come too rapidly and one feels one has missed important clues. But then a tiny wordless scene, in which a Japanese woman pours tea, stabs the heart. This play would be more enlightening second time around. It is accessible, however. One delights in the unusual details of stage movement, in the fluidly shifting time and space that move to the tempos of the play’s essence. The plot line will be easier to follow if one arrives early and reads the program notes, especially those on chronology, which is deliberately shifted in this production.

Our theatre is invigorated by many kinds of plays. This is one of them. Eric Hill’s presence in the Berkshires making such theatre available to us is a blessing not to be taken lightly.

Floyd Collins at Berkshire Theatre Festival, June 10, 2004

June 10, 2003 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall

The Berkshire Theatre Festival has begun what promises to be a dynamic and dazzling theatre season with its sold out opening of Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins at the Unicorn on June 10. Audience enthusiasm at the curtain call was almost as strong and lusty as the events just witnessed on stage.

This musical is not an easy one to stage. The plot covers 17 days in 1925 when the entrapment of a young man in a cave 150 feet below the earth’s surface provided America with its first media circus, staged in the second act with hawkers, balloons, and flash cameras.

This event was real. Pinned down by a rock on his leg, the hero is immobile in a narrow space while above him, family, friends, and eventually reporters, engineers, and even doctors seek to free him. It would seem impossible to crowd all of the happenings above and below ground into a coherent and active whole, but script, music and ingenious use of theatrical design manage to do it.

Every level of the Unicorn’s tidy stage is employed as well as levels beneath it and surrounding it. Wisely, realism is abandoned, and one readily adapts to the non- reality that a descent into the under-stage leads to a niche high in an upstage corner where a prone would-be rescuer struggles to reach the trapped man.

And three dancing singing journalists, who lend a comic relief after a shattering tense duet, can evoke the unfeeling joy of a media frenzy fanned by newspapers and radio.

Because the staging is non-realistic, the trapped hero is not forced to remain supine in his narrow crypt. As he physically lies there, his thoughts free his body to soar, to move psychologically and actually into poignant, joyful, and daunting flights as he philosophically begins to understand what he was perhaps really looking for and can dance and sing a strange joy.

The play begins and ends with the ballad of Floyd Collins accompanied by guitars and evoking the background of the play. Floyd Collins (Dalane Mason) is the eldest son of an impoverished Kentucky family. He loves caves and has discovered a small one but
feels sure that beyond, deeper in the earth there exists a glorious and beautiful one which he can find and which will, when advertised, bring prosperity to the family he loves.

He is also, unwittingly, looking for a connection to something deeper; he thinks that all the caves might be connected into a giant one; and he almost grasps the understanding that the connection he seeks is a human one.

Outstanding are duets The Riddle Song and Daybreak

The latter connection, the human one, is played out movingly in scenes between members of his devoted family. Outstanding are duets The Riddle Song and Daybreak between Floyd and his devoted younger brother Homer (Cory Grant). Joyous with hope or poignant with hidden fear, these scenes grip the heart
as does his sister Nellie’s (Rachel Bell) love and devotion in Through the Mountain. And it is there on another level in the efforts of a cub reporter, Skeets Miller (Colby Chambers) in his one solo.

While the poignant scenes are the small ones, the full company scenes are thunderous, especially when they share with Floyd The Dream. The hidden five-piece orchestra and the on-stage full cast of thirteen, who manage to seem a multitude, crescendo to the skies. This young company of actors love what they
are doing; their dedication and élan are contagious. If at times they almost go over the top, one forgives them.

Sondheim has, rightly, blessed Adam Guettel’s music and lyrics, Tina Landau has successfully added additional lyrics and dialog. Director Jared Coseglia has inspired his cast while Mimi Lien has created the impossible in a set that is many places at once, and Marija Djordjevic’s costumes bring the 1920’s to a vivid reality. Everyone connected with this play should be pleased and happy – the audience was!

The cast of Floyd Collins: reporter (Jonathan Kay), Skeets Miller (Colby Chambers), Floyd Collins (Dalane Mason),Lee Collins (Joe Jung), Nellie Collins (Rachel Bell), Bee Doyle (Paul L. Coffey), Miss Jane (Beth Hallaren), Ed Bishop (Thay Floyd), Jewel Estes (Russ Salmon), reporter (Neal Mortimer).

Berkshires arts and entertainment

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The Berkshires is an area in New England midway between Springfield, MA and Albany, NY on the east-west axis, and stretching north from the northwest corner of Connecticut up to Vermont. All of Berkshire county, the Massachusetts geographic but non-governmental entity, lays within the Berkshires, which spills into neighboring areas of Columbia county, NY and Litchfield county, CT, as well as Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties in MA.

Tanglewood Main Gate

There are several performing and fine arts organizations in the Berkshires that attract cultural tourists thorughout the year, especially during July and August, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra is in residence at the Tanglewood Music Center, with a nearly 600 acre campus located in Lenox and Stockbridge. The Berkshire Theatre Festival, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and the Clark Art Institute were the other organizations that were instrumental in the establishment of the Berkshires as a major cultural destination. Many more have set up shop over the past few decades. Find out more on our partner site, BerkshireLinks.com.