Arts Listings

The Theater: Actors Ensemble Stages ‘A Dream Play’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday June 08, 2007

Actors Ensemble of Berkeley has taken on an ambitious project—Strindberg’s shape-shifting A Dream Play as a site-specific performance, in and around the Berkeley Art Center in Live Oak Park, played during afternoons over the next few weekends. And admission is free. 

The production features 11 actors as 32 different characters at 10 locations, inside and out. Director David Stein, who adapted Strindberg’s text, written at the turn of the 20th century, talked about the genesis and progress of this unusual project: “I’ve been chewing on this for the last four years. I did Phaedra with Subterranean Shakespeare, and that introduced me to the Art Center. I was captivated by the architecture, the settings, walking around the creek, with all the evergreens, the cypress making strange bends—all very ethereal.” 

A copy of the play surfaced at a garage sale, at the same time that a production of it in another area was reviewed in a magazine. “I thought it was perfect for a site-specific staging, with its sudden scene changes and its many possible interpretations.” 

Stein spoke of the play’s “great story, about a child of the gods who comes to earth for the first time, and sees humanity for what it is, all the ugliness and hypocrisy, but also love and kindness.” 

He worked over the text, “paring it down to 14 scenes, distilling it to the essence. The original has 50 different characters! We try to refer to them, and to much of what was cut. There were so many stage directions, heavy props ... the daughter of the gods coming down through the clouds from out of the sky! When I first looked at it, with its moving walls and mountains growing, I thought, how do we get from one scene to the next? But I took out the stage directions, and said, ‘We can get there.’” 

The Actors Ensemble version uses only minimal sets and just a few props. “We put our budget into the costumes,” said Stein, “and they’re gorgeous, very bright, in Hindu style. Our designer, Helen Slomowitz, did a great job.” 

On his philosophy of taking the action off one stage and around the building, across a landscape, Stein says, “This is only the second time we’ve done Strindberg, and the second time we’ve done an outdoor show. The first was Euripides’ The Bacchae, which I directed in ’03 at John Hinckle Park. I liked it at Hinckle. I like having the audience in the middle, like overhearing something happening nearby, an argument next to you, and you want to know what’s going on. When it’s outdoors, versus in a theater, you can follow along to the next site—or, if you want to, you can wander off. Everyone gets a map on the back of the program, so they can stroll away and come back to the next scene, or the one after.” 

Asked about the meaning of it all, Stein reflected, “What’s the play about, how to sum it up? The plot’s Expressionistic, almost like a painting. The more we rehearsed, the more we picked up the connections. Like the characters are oftentimes the same. Agnes [the earthly name of the child of the gods] keeps repeating, ‘We are poor souls, all of us!’ But it’s not all gloom and doom. All the moments ring true—and often you just have to chuckle. It applies to everybody, and is really timely—perfect for what the world is going through right now.” 



Presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through July 1 on the lawn in front of the Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut St. Free. 841-5600.