Before there was “Inception” or “Memento,” there was “A Dreamplay,” Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1901 surrealist drama-in-a-dream. Now at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater through June 19, artistic director Rob Melrose’s plucky production tries heartily to make the nonlinear, metaphysical plot of “A Dreamplay” enjoyable for (or merely accessible to) a general audience. Despite this, “A Dreamplay” is a challenging play and one that makes for a less than revelatory close to Cutting Ball’s 17th season.
As its name suggests, “A Dreamplay” is a play written in the form of a dream. In fact, “A Dreamplay” is the first play to use the freeform, circuitous logic of a dream instead of the neat, linear conventions of traditional dramatic structure. Written more than 100 years ago, Strindberg’s “A Dreamplay” marks the point at which a divide between naturalism and non-naturalism emerged in theater, a split that foregrounded the emergence of the expressionist and surrealist movements in the early 20th century. Strindberg himself describes the play’s surrealist dream logic most accurately in the play’s introductory note, where he writes: “Time and space do not exist … the characters split, double, redouble, evaporate, condense, scatter, and converge. But one consciousness remains above all of them: the dreamer’s.”
In “A Dreamplay,” this dreamer is Agnes (Ponder Goddard), a young woman who dreams she is the Vedic god Indra’s daughter, sent to earth to experience the burdens of human life. There, she meets a variety of Earth’s inhabitants, including a lawyer (Carl Holvick), a poet (Kunal Prasad) and a suitor (Josh Schell), all who teach her something about the miseries of earth-bound life. Strindberg uses the encounters between Agnes and those she meets as a way to explore a variety of forms of human suffering, including everything from the strains of marriage and family life and the injustices of class struggle and poverty, to infighting about academic disciplines and the futility of unrequited love.
Goddard is an ephemeral Agnes, and her performance has a luminous quality well-suited to her character’s godly lineage. Her shaved head is like both a monk’s and a newborn child’s, a choice that nicely captures her dual presence on earth: that of the infant, learning the ways of human society, and that of the enlightened, a celestial visitor. The rest of the eight-person ensemble, many of whom take on multiple roles throughout the performance, etch moments of sheer comedic delight into Strindberg’s sprawling play, which, just like a dream, slithers and morphs unrelentingly.
Marilet Martinez, for example, transforms effortlessly from an aged opera house matron to the sinister quarantine master, while Kirsten Peacock brings a mesmerizing, dance-like ease of movement to each of her roles, no matter how peripheral. As a deranged maid, Radhika Rao caulks the walls of Michael Locher’s minimalist set (the focal point of which is a large, illuminated acrylic box that serves alternately as a door to other realms, a desk, an organ and a coal-mining apparatus) with hilariously maniacal precision, while Carl Hovick’s lawyer has the pleasure of experiencing two classic, anxiety-fueled dream scenarios. In one scene, he arrives at his office in the nude, and in another, his teeth fall out during an argument with Agnes.
These comedic moments, along with the surrealist logic of Strindberg’s work should make “A Dreamplay” anything but tedious, and yet, despite energetic performances and an equally lively new translation by Paul Walsh, the production sags under the weight of Strindberg’s own heavy-handed hero’s journey. As Agnes comes to understand human suffering, she realizes that “it’s a plaintive cry to be human.” Yet, Strindberg’s somber message is at once both lost within and made too obvious by the play’s frenetic structure.
If even a standout cast working with an excellent translation still fails to make “A Dreamplay” engaging, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that, while “A Dreamplay” certainly holds an important place in theatrical history, it is too often a surrealist nightmare on the stage.
Contact Sarah Elizabeth Adler at [email protected].