Review: 'A Dream Play' something of a nightmare

There is a reason that most of us don't find ourselves clamoring to hear about the "crazy" dreams the raving madman outside the coffeeshop has been having lately: Dreams don't typically make great stories, even on the blessed occasion that the storyteller isn't completely bananas.

The University of Illinois Department of Theatre is attempting to tell a crazy man's dream story anyway, however, as it presents August Strindberg's "A Dream Play," showing through Nov. 4 at the Studio Theatre in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Strindberg forged the European Expressionist movement as a writer and visionary and was incredibly influential in his craft; a bevy of impressive predecessors have cited him as an influence (Tennessee Williams and Ingmar Bergman, anybody?).

But as Strindberg's career progressed, so did his dementia.

His later plays are about as viewer-friendly as an "Alice in Wonderland"/"Requiem for a Dream" mash-up in their insistence on pushing the boundaries of time, character development and — as far as the audience is concerned — sanity to their outermost limits.

After battling his way through a series of psychotic episodes (seriously), Strindberg decided it was time to bring the feeling of defeatist paranoia and misery to the masses. "A Dream Play" was written to mirror the nonsensical world of our dreams. In it, Strindberg unabashedly flies in the face of convention by writing a play in which neither the passage of time, nor character or plot development, are subjected to the traditional constructs of literature and performance art.

It is not in the least bit shocking to me to learn that Strindberg was unhappy with the premiere production of "A Dream Play" because Strindberg felt the director was interpreting the script too literally, toning down the dreamlike essence Strindberg had intended. More interestingly, the play floundered under the original production constructs until being revived to critical success by director Max Reinhardt, who stayed much closer to Strindberg's crazy vision.

I know that I am running the risk of catching all sorts of flak for my criticism of Strindberg's work, which, in the eyes of many literary and theater circles, is straight-up blasphemy. But my job is to review theater productions for the general public, and just because a work is important does not mean it is entertaining (and you guys really need to know what you're getting into with this one).

The production itself was magnificent. Michelle Grube carried her role as Agnes, the miserably afflicted lead, with palpable, and at times, exhausting torment. Nick Narcisi, Nora Foley, David Monahan and Elana Weiner-Kaplow were other standout favorites of mine (though I must admit, I had only a vague understanding of what was actually transpiring in the story at any given moment), and the design team of Thomas Korder (lighting), Julie P. McGill (costume), D.J. Puuri (sound) and Amanda Williams (scenic) did an exceptional job of recreating the dreamlike experience Strindberg envisioned.

I overheard a woman say as the lights came up for intermission: "I love this production, but I hate the play."

My sentiments exactly. I know how many hundreds of hours go into each and every Krannert production, so I am reluctant to criticize any production too harshly for fear of, if nothing else, appearing ungrateful to the artists who make this community a richer and more vibrant place. That said, the actors and production team did the very best it could with the material chosen, but I am still wondering why that choice was made in the first place.

Surely, some theatergoers will love "A Dream Play" and will delight in the idea of the sinister underbelly of human existence and the overly indulgent manner in which Strindberg chooses to deliver that message to us. But not me.

I got my fill of the existentialist pity party concept when I was 14 and playing Soul Asylum's "Misery" at full volume on repeat for hours at a time. And I don't think I'm the only one sharing in this sentiment, either: It appeared to me that a solid one-third of the audience ditched out on the opening-night performance at intermission, and while there was some laughter from the audience at sporadic moments, it felt more like nervous tittering than sincere chuckles.

I would never recommend that someone pass on a particular production just because I (or anyone, really) didn't like it. But I also feel obligated to report what one can expect from a performance.

In the case of "A Dream Play," what one can expect is a playwright's deluge of contemptible musings about how much life stinks — performed by a delightful cast and crew (sorry, guys).

So go see it, I guess. And, hey: If you can make it through to the second act, you're already mentally stronger than a third of the population.

See, Strindberg. It's called "looking on the bright side!"

Mary Wyczolkowski is a freelance writer for The News-Gazette

'A Dream Play' will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 31-Nov. 3 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, in the Studio Theatre of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

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