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.
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.