×

A Dream Play

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.

With:
With: Jessica Liedberg, Henrik Rafaelsen, Gerhard Hoboerstorfer, Andreas Liljeholm, Lasse Petterson, Ake Lundqvist, Anita Ekstrom, Kajsa Reingardt, Axelle Axell, Christer Banck, Robert Panzenbock, Thomas Wijkmark, Bo Samuelson, Per-Olov Gerhard Larsson, Cecilia Nilsson, Ulricha Johnson, Anna Rygdren.

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.”

Popular on Variety

A Dream Play

Brooklyn Academy of Music/Howard Gilman Opera House; 2,000 seats; $55 top

Production: A Brooklyn Academy of Music presentation of the Stockholm's Stadsteater production of the play by August Strindberg in two acts. Directed by Robert Wilson.

Creative: Sets, Wilson; lighting, Andreas Fuchs, Wilson; music, Michael Galasso; costumes and masks, Jacques Reynaud; dramaturgs, Holm Keller, Monica Ohlsson; sound, Ronald Hallgren; production director, Bertil Bernhardtz. Opened Nov. 28, 2000. Reviewed Nov. 26. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast: With: Jessica Liedberg, Henrik Rafaelsen, Gerhard Hoboerstorfer, Andreas Liljeholm, Lasse Petterson, Ake Lundqvist, Anita Ekstrom, Kajsa Reingardt, Axelle Axell, Christer Banck, Robert Panzenbock, Thomas Wijkmark, Bo Samuelson, Per-Olov Gerhard Larsson, Cecilia Nilsson, Ulricha Johnson, Anna Rygdren.

More Legit

  • Jane Alexander James Cromwell

    Jane Alexander, James Cromwell to Star in Broadway's 'Grand Horizons'

    Jane Alexander and James Cromwell will head up the Broadway cast of Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons.” The two Oscar nominees will star as Bill and Nancy, a couple whose five-decade-long relationship unravels when they move to a retirement community. After Nancy decides she wants a divorce, her family life is sent into disarray. The show [...]

  • Chasing Rainbows review

    New Jersey Theater Review: Judy Garland Bio 'Chasing Rainbows'

    Judy Garland’s voice was unparalleled and rich, an emotive contralto that lasted long into her later years with a loud and winning showiness to go with its melodramatic nuances. But that voice concealed a troubled backstory, as the woman born Frances Ethel Gumm toted the baggage of a closeted gay father, an ugly duckling’s insecurity [...]

  • Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    One constant of David Byrne’s long and prolific career is his ability to grow a seemingly simple idea into something brilliant, whether it’s the melody of “Road to Nowhere” or the concept of the “Stop Making Sense” tour some 36 years ago, where the premise of bringing out nine musicians, one at a time per [...]

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content