Review: August Strindberg’s ‘A Dreamplay’ In A New Translation at Cutting Ball (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Realism could not contain the genius of Strindberg. 

George Bernard Shaw was of the opinion that Scandinavian playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg were “giants of the theater.” Indeed they were and indeed they are. Anybody who has taken a theatre history survey class has encountered the work of Ibsen and Strindberg who, together, ushered in the era of naturalism and realism in the theatre. Both Ibsen and Strindberg wrote realistic plays soaked in political and social content. Ibsen is perhaps most famous for the feminist play, A Doll’s House, which attacked the dark side of the institution of marriage. Strindberg is most famous for Miss Julie, which realistically explored struggles of class and sexuality.

But realism could not contain the genius of Strindberg, who was, at heart, a poet with a taste for the surreal. While Ibsen polished his naturalistic dramas, Strindberg abandoned naturalism and set out to explore the dark worlds of sexuality, dream, and madness. The two playwrights grew so far apart that they saw themselves as arch-rivals.

With “A Dreamplay,” Strindberg turned his back on Ibsen and naturalism and set out to create a play that is literally a dream. It lacks any obvious surface structure, continuity, sense and predictability but thrills with abstract images, flights of poetry, metaphorical language, and absurdity. Strindberg does not set out to mirror life as we know it on the stage; he turns our life inside out to put the subconscious on display.

“A Dreamplay” has the thinnest of gossamer plots: Indra’s daughter is falling through space and is caught by earth’s atmosphere. She begins to choke and hears her father telling her where she is, and assuring her that she can survive but will find earth a difficult place — not as bad as some, not as good as others. The beings here, she is told, speak nothing but complaints. Still, she wants to visit herself as she believes she hears something beautiful as well. She descends, and incarnates as a girl named Agnes.

A sympathetic listener, Agnes then encounters any number of representative humans: The Husband, The Wife, The Gentleman, The Schoolmaster, The Lady, The Deans of Theology, Medicine, Philosophy and Law; The Officer (and Lover), and so on. Each encounter is but the fragment of a dream.

Various stories unfold, but nothing — as in an actual dream — is entirely clear. The effect of  “A Dreamplay” is musical, and more like a symphonic poem than an opera. The script does not so much tell a story as bathe the audience in imagery and emotion. The settings, costumes, lighting, soundscape, and even the movements of the actors are similarly peculiar and surreal, more evocative than telling.

“A Dreamplay” was Strindberg’s favorite of all his works, and is considered to be a great masterpiece.

The creation of a great ensemble requires extraordinarily intimate work from the actors, as can be seen in these rehearsal shorts of Cutting Ball's ensemble for "A Dreamplay." Photo Credit: Cutting Ball.
The creation of a great ensemble requires extraordinary vulnerability and intimate work from the actors, as can be seen in these rehearsal pictures of the ensemble for “A Dreamplay.” Photo Credit: Cutting Ball.

Paul Walsh’s new, idiomatic translation offers clear language that does not add to the necessary obscurity of a dream, but is very lucid without any loss of poetry and charm. The design team has done extraordinary work — a nearly bare stage features one primary set piece, a luminous box that can be moved about and seems simultaneously abstract and concrete. The costumes are effective and props are appropriately suggestive and cartoonish. The remarkable sound design by Cliff Caruthers deserves particular mention.

Each playing multiple parts, the entire company works as a remarkably tight ensemble. Each actor seems to be actually dreaming for us. This is difficult to describe, but wonderful to behold. The various characters, with their different complaints and loveliness, play upon our empathy and give us the kind of emotional ride for which theatre is created.

There are many memorable moments, but here are a few random callouts: Ponder Goddard as Agnes, falling to earth at once willing and resisting. Josh Schell as an officer and a lover, calling to his lady Victoria with a lifetime of longing and worship packed into a single word; Carl Holvick as a wonderfully haughty Chancellor; Marilet Martinez as an archetypal Gatekeeper; Kunal Prusad as the Naval Officer; Kirsten Peacock as the adored but perhaps not adorable Victoria; Carina Lastimosa as an ethereal Ballet Dancer; Rhadika Rao as a student.

For all these excellent characterizations, it is also true that no single actor stands out because the ensemble is as tight as a philharmonic symphony. Although each member has featured moments, it is the whole that moves us. Ensemble work of this caliber is a rare achievement and should be celebrated!

Hooray for Cutting Ball, director Rob Melrose, and an extraordinary company for this fine and delicate rendition of “A Dreamplay.” August Strindberg would be very pleased.

“A Dreamplay” continues at The Exit on Taylor through June 19th, 2016. For further information, click here

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Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“A Dreamplay” by August Strindberg, translated by Paul Walsh. Produced by Cutting Ball Theater. Director: Rob Melrose. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Lighting Designer: Heather Basarab. Sound Designer: Cliff Caruthers. Costume Designer: Megan Finley. Props Master: Brittany White. Choreographer: Randee Paufve. 

Cast:

Agnes/Indra/s Daughter: Ponder Goddard. The Officer: Josh Schell. The Lawyer/The Glazier/The Father/The Billposter/Fowl Strait Prisoner/He/The Gentleman/The School Master/The Chancellor: Carl Hovick. The Poet/Indra’s Voice/The Prompter/The Naval Officer/Student/The Husband/The Blind Man/The Gentleman: Kunal Prasad. Agnes’ Double/Lina/Victoria/The Police Officer/The Dean of Medicine/She/Edith: Kirsten Peacock. The Mother/The Chorus Girl/The Dean of Law/Kristen/Edith’s Mother/Student/Second Coal Bearer: Radhika Rao. The Gatekeeper/The Dean of Philosophy/The Quantine Master/The Lady: Marilet Martinez. The Ballet Dancer/The Dean of Theology/Fowl Strait Prisoner/Alice/Sonya/The Wife/First Coal Bearer: Carina Lastimosa. 

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