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Takoma Theatre - ARCHIVE
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September 6 -October 4, 2003
A Dream Play

Reviewed September 11
Price range $20 - $24
Running time 3 hours

In the first years of the twentieth century, Swedish playwright, philosopher and novelist August Strindberg was recovering from the mental breakdown that was to divide his creative life. Before that almost everything he wrote was about the battle of the sexes. In his later period he wrote almost exclusively about maters mystical and philosophical. A Dream Play, written between 1901 and 1902 and first performed in 1907, may be the best known of his plays of this second period but even it is produced so infrequently that the opportunity to see it actually performed on stage is a rarity. In Open Theater’s extremely stylized production, that opportunity is more intellectually interesting than dramatically and emotionally fulfilling, but there are a number of rewards for the lengthy experience.

Storyline: The Hindu supreme god, Indra, sends his daughter to Earth to determine what suffering is all about and why it exists among mortal humans when it is such a foreign concept to the gods. She journeys through human existence, learning that ambiguity and contradiction are widespread in the human condition. The entire play is structured as a dream, avoiding specifics of time and place and using repetition to create an at-times disturbing deja vu.

Director Joe Martin has taken a very Swedish script and embellished it with all the touches of Indian theatrical traditions that so fascinated Strindberg at the time he wrote it. This play and the others of that period in Strindberg’s life, To Damascus and The Dance of Death, are seen as the birth of expressionism in theater and Martin has emphasized that very quality. Don’t look for anything like Strindberg’s neighbor Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler which premiered only ten years earlier. Then, northern European Theater was dominated by plot and psychology. Here, just a decade later, Strindberg was taking it into philosophy, replacing plotting with rumination and realism with expressionism. Martin emphasizes the change as he sets up colorful and impressionistic stage pictures at a leisurely pace.

Martin’s cast is directed to use a highly stylized performance technique with formal, almost stilted gestures for nearly every line of dialogue (“Look out there” is accompanied by an arcing gesture of the arm, “I’m surprised” by a crossing of the arms at the chest) that is at times hypnotic. Richard Henrich, in the ambiguously named role of “the advocate,” gets the most out of this technique, striking poses that could be statuary on some of his more important and more visually evocative lines. Tricia McCauley, as the daughter of the god whose journey is at the center of the piece, takes a more subtle approach to the mannerisms, which works well because she is on stage practically the entire three hours and overdoing the gestures would quickly become tiresome.

As an atmospheric piece, the combination of set, costume, lights, choreography and music are critical. The Takoma Theatre, still showing signs of an ongoing renovation effort, has an extremely big stage area to fill but practically no wing or fly space. So most of what the designers produce is either on stage all night or fairly simple roll-on roll-off set pieces. Most of the money for the production appears to have been spent on the costumes which are colorful and sumptuous in a strongly Indian appearance. There are evocative touches such as the pouring of water from one bucket to another and back to give the sound of the sea, and the three member sitar, surbahar and percussion band adds a great deal to the overall Indian feeling of the piece.

Written by August Strindberg. Directed by Joe Martin. Music by Shubha Sankaran. Choreography by Christel Stevens. Design: Michael C. Stepowany and Mahima Poddar (set) Evgenia Salazar (costumes) Elizabeth Jernigan and Annie Houston (masks) Nicholas Johansen (lights) Page Carr (photography) Patti Baer (stage manager). Cast: Nazia Chaudhry, Kim Curtis, Anne Marie Dalton, Colin DiGarbo, Chris Davenport, Richard Hernich, Annie Houston, Elizabeth Jernigan, Ed Johnson, Jai Khalsa, Maxine Lausell, Joshua McCarthy, Tricia McCauley, Ellie Nicoll, Gae Schmitt, Brandon Welch.