The matchup of visionary director Robert Wilson with “A Dream Play,” August Strindberg’s 1901 meditation on the miseries of human existence, seemed promising. The idiosyncratic theatrical auteur might be expected to have an intuitive appreciation for the surreal landscapes of Strindberg’s rarely staged play.
But it only takes a few minutes to realize that Wilson isn’t particularly interested in Strindberg’s play, or at least in obeying the letter of its text. The images that Wilson conjures in his staging, seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a production that debuted in 1998 at Stockholm’s Stadsteater, rarely correspond with the ones mentioned by the play’s author — there’s no castle, to begin with, so no flowering chrysanthemums atop it. When characters talk about hairpins, it’s a chunk of gray wood — the seat of a chair, I think, that they fondle.
The settings specified by Strindberg are as often as not replaced by places of work — where bricklaying and construction and the sale of dry goods take place. It’s an apt enough image of existence as duty and struggle, a motif echoed in the text, but it lacks the poetic dimension of Strindberg’s choices.
Wilson’s liberal way with the text would be immaterial if he had captured its spirit, but his expansively designed, elaborately staged production is a ponderous interpretation of a play that should feel lighter than air; even when Wilson is trying to be funny, as in an elaborate, interpolated cow-milking routine, he’s heavy as lead.
Three hours long, with complicated lighting and design schemes and some haunting and quite beautiful musical contributions from Michael Galasso, the production is aptly described in the program as “epic.” But “A Dream Play” is not an epic; it’s a philosophical doodle — a sweetly sour divertissement whose potency resides in its brisk whimsy and its earnest simplicity.
There is nothing brisk about Wilson’s aesthetic, and for all its clean lines, sharp lighting and handsome muted colors, it’s not really simple either; Wilson’s diversions from the stage directions and setting creates a tension between the play and the production that is ultimately oppressive. Strindberg’s mournful litany — “Human beings are to be pitied,” repeated by Agnes, a god’s daughter who descends to earth to observe human experience — should come across as the sweet-sad refrain of a lullaby; here it’s like repeated banging on a loud gong.
Since the staging, combined with the inevitably distancing use of supertitle translations (the actors are Swedish), effectively divorces the audience from the text, we are left with a pageant of imagery. Some of it is quite beautiful — the massive grey and white painted backdrops are soothing indeed, and the lighting effects have a hypnotic, sometimes rapturous attraction. But it communicates little beyond chilly grandeur and a vague eeriness.
In the end a play deeply sympathetic to human struggles is rendered almost inhuman. It turns out there was a deep flaw in the reasoning that suggested director and playwright would be an ideal match: the glacially paced, glassy-eyed figures who populate Wilson’s productions don’t really recall figures in dreams; they’re more like sleepwalkers. With ghoulishly pallid makeup, also a Wilson specialty, this isn’t so much a waking dream as a living nightmare: “A Dream Play” as performed by the cast of “The Night of the Living Dead.”