Arts Listings

The Theater: ‘A Dream Play’ in Live Oak Park

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday June 22, 2007

“Father! Father! I hopped off on a cloud ...”—and the figure in a sari (Sarah Meyerhoff), standing on the lawn at the Berkeley Art Center, seems to be sinking, as the voice of her Father, the god Indra (Thomas West), echoes up from the creek below, reassuring her as she descends to earth, in the first scene of Strindberg’s masterpiece, A Dream Play. 

The play was adapted and directed by David Stein for Actors Ensemble, Berkeley’s oldest theater company (50 this year), played all around and inside the Berkeley Art Center in Live Oak Park, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays for the next two weekends. Admission is free. 

It’s a site-specific play, with the audience following the players around to various locations for scenes—and the scenes follow a dream logic, as the title indicates, with plenty of margin for satire of earthly life, and an acerbic humor special to the author. 

“It’s beautiful!” Agnes, Indra’s daughter, exclaims on seeing the planet. “But still more beautiful long ago,” intones her father’s voice. Then she hears the sounds of humanity: “It sounds joyless!”  

“I know,” responds the god, with a long pause, provoking quiet laughter, “All that spinning sets people dizzy!” 

Agnes will say in a minute, when she hears more of earth’s denizens, “You judge them too harshly, Father!” And the heavenly voice replies, “Really! Go and judge for yourself.” 

The dizziness is explored as Agnes, losing touch with her father’s voice, goes deeper and deeper into human existence, first led (with the audience in tow) into a “growing castle,” where she meets a young man who is prisoner within (Jose Garcia). Asked if he wants to be freed, he says he’s not sure. People pass, and recognize Agnes: “They say she’s the daughter of Indra! Act normal ...” 

These quick, often contradictory vignettes build up into an extraordinary parody—deadpan, but often impish, or almost demonic—of earthly existence, as sped up and stylized in dream language. A stage door Johnny (Garcia, again) waits years for his beloved actress or dancer to appear. Her voice is heard above, but she never shows.  

The doorkeeper (Maureen Coyne), busy quilting with patches of woe, reassures him she’s still there: “she never goes out!” Agnes recognizes the young man of the castle, who swore to love his would-be rescuer—but he’s forgotten her in his starstruck intoxication. 

A fantastic array of characters pass by through the scenes, spread all around and inside the Center: A Lawyer (Thomas West again), whom Agnes marries; a Medical Inspector (John Anthony Nolan); a Poet (Steven Morales) coming from the mud baths (”True love conquers everything—including sulphur and carbolic acid!”); a Bride (Kat Kniesel) and Groom (Anthony Croson) who are so happy they make a pact to die happy; a Maid (Meira Perelstein) who pastes up the holes thewind blows through in the castle, cheerfully; an Officer (Andrew Nolan); the Dean of the Law School (Michael Kelly) as well as his fellow deans, trying to open a locked door that may open onto the universal secret ... 

The scenes string the theme along, but not always in a forward motion. Like Baroque art, it’s literally play, and at times seems to be in a hall of mirrors—carny mirrors, even. 

It’s a perfect match for Actors Ensemble, with the range of stage experience in the cast, from fresh amateurs to old hands at community theater. Like a pageant, it provokes exuberant play-acting, and some poignant moments.  

And it’s a treat for the audience, who leave their seats and the darkness of the auditorium to follow the action around the lovely environs of the art center on a sunny summer day and witness the sprawling scenes of an original masterwork of early modern theater.