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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 498-499
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A Dream Play
A Dream Play. By August Strindberg. Stockholm's Stadsteater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York. 3 December 2000.
August Strindberg's A Dream Play is a signal contribution to the now century long exploration of the relationship between symbolism and naturalism. The work is his response to a question that remains of central concern to our age: how do we make meaning (of suffering)? As the title suggests, Strindberg's answer involves an investigation of theatre itself, which he presents as a central metaphor for our very relationship to questions of meaning. A significant portion of the play's action takes place outside a theatre side door within which lies the promise of an answer, perhaps even the answer. This, however, is a door to which no one has a key. Many of the greatest theatre directors have taken up the challenge of this play including Max Reinhardt, Antonin Artaud, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Lepage. An opportunity to experience Robert Wilson's investigation of the piece occurred at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival 2000. Throughout his singular career, Wilson has explored the theatre of time and space with relentless precision, and in this production, which premiered at Stockholm's Stadsteater in November 1998, he applies his knowledge with astounding effect. Theatricality is precisely framed in this work, for even as we are seduced by the visual mastery of his stage pictures, we are conscious of the act of watching.
The building blocks for this production are thirteen large tableaus separated by dissolves and [End Page 498] blackouts. As a collective, the tableau describe a fragmented narrative that is as unsettling and resonant as sleep interrupted by reality and vice versa: Agnes, the daughter of a Hindu god, visits Earth for a taste of human experience and comes away perplexed by the paradoxes of human suffering and mortality. Agnes, played by Jessica Liedberg with the exquisite physical control of a slow-motion gymnast, proceeds through a series of related social scenarios in the company of three different men--an officer, lawyer and poet--witnessing and experiencing the frustrations of human intercourse. In scenes set at an alley stage door, at a seaside park, in an office, and outside and inside a family home, she learns about the agonies of repetitive labor, unrequited love, class inequities, spiritual torment, and, in a marriage to the lawyer, the oppression of domesticity (they argue over food and housekeeping) symbolized by the presence of a maid who plasters over every crevice in the walls of their home. When her earthly visit is finally over, Agnes leaves burdened with compassion and relief.
Wilson's favored tools of presentation are visual and aural; therefore his approach to storytelling has more in common with a symphony conductor or a painter than a director of conventional drama. Emotions and actions are largely unanchored to language; consequently the Swedish text becomes a component of the sound score. It is the dramatic and sensual aspects of the mise-en-scène that inspire significant visceral revelations and associations, making the English surtitles superfluous. Wilson's use of space and measured time, repetition, rigidly stylized movement and gesture, the orchestration of sound that includes amplified abrasive sound, humorous effects, the spoken text, and the haunting score with a prevailing Nordic lament composed by Michael Galasso, visual wonders of transforming projections, an oppressive palette of black, white, and blue-gray through which vibrant primary colors bloom at particular moments, and evocative lighting resonate far beyond the boundaries of the cerebral. The projected backdrop setting of a two-story house in a wintry yard that suddenly goes autumnal amber not only is a breathtaking array of visual artistry but also represents this true and compelling collaboration between actors, mise-en-scène, and the question of meaning.
Wilson merges the Fingal's Cave and Foulstrand scenes into a single fiery industrial brickyard where color erupts, and Agnes and the lawyer commit to a future together against this brilliant red brickyard. In measured time, they advance...