The characters of Swedish playwright (as well as novelist, essayist, poet, and painter) August Strindberg are sometimes drawn with stinging viciousness; he’s a misanthrope and a cynic about human nature, especially in his early, mostly realistic plays. But his 1902 work A Dream Play is a very different kind of piece: a precursor to many of the avant-garde theater movements of the early twentieth century, A Dream Play is somewhere between philosophy and drama, abstract, driven by ideas and investigations into human nature rather than character or plot.
The play, adapted for National Asian American Theatre Company by Sung Rno and Andrew Pang, is really a series of vignettes about humanity more than a narrative: Agnes, daughter of the Hindu god Indra, is a curious and disobedient child who, in her wanderings, finds herself falling to earth, where her father tasks her with solving the mystery of human existence—how humans have “hearts so heavy with grief, yet they can sing with such longing and joy.”
The big-picture questions posed by the play—about the nature and meaning of humanity, about the search for the significance in life’s trials, about whether we are even capable of knowing the difference between paradise and hell (Fairhaven and Foulstrand, here)—remain, of course, relevant, even as the piece’s parable or fairy-tale-like qualities often make the answers come out sounding like familiar proverbs.
Agnes’s travels introduce her to a range of human experience and a number of people, most of them trapped by their own yearning, wanting some state of affairs for themselves that will never be: a resolution to the traumas of childhood, the fulfillment of a long-deferred goal. An officer pines for an actress, who strings him along without ever coming out the stage door for their date; the stage-door keeper has been embroidering a shawl for twenty-six years, waiting for the return of her faithless lover. A bill-poster has finally realized his dream of acquiring a green fishing net, only to find it not quite so satisfying as he’d hope. And Agnes herself falls in love with a crusading lawyer, only to find themselves living in poverty and exhaustion.
Rno and Pang (who also directs) seem to a certain extent to be trying to play against, rather than into, the play’s surrealism and metaphorical qualities, trying to find emotional specificity and touches of ordinary humanity within the metaphorically resonant, symbol-laden sequences and segments. This does create some effective moments—the musings of the poet/narrator (Jojo Gonzalez), an old man shuttling between the ecstasy of creation and a cynicism he can’t quite shake, as well as the scenes between Agnes (Tina Chilip) and the Lawyer (Alexis Camins), which are affecting in a quiet, sensitive way—and it may be the best way to give some contemporary resonance to such an abstract piece.
But it does mute some of the more surreal, dreamlike qualities; the trade-off, for me, was that the scenes that are most abstract or symbol-laden, like the mysteries surrounding the opening of a door with a cloverleaf window, felt whimsical rather than connected to the rest of the piece. Some of the more surreal visual touches, too, like the use of a toy piano and Rica de Ocampo’s sinuous pole dancing, are enjoyable for their imagistic qualities, but also feel a little out of place.
I found the most effective thread the love story turned sour, when the god’s daughter actually tries to step into, rather than simply observe, a human life. This is where the play’s realist and surrealist impulses, its symbolism or moralizing and its emotions, come together best, as Agnes unthinkingly falls in love with a man and bears him a child. Then she finds herself weary of poverty and cabbage and chores and compromises. Being who she is, she has the freedom to leave—but life’s lesson, and its pattern, demand that she return and repeat, learn her duty and enjoy only her sins. It’s the worst of humanity, shown with pathos.
At other times, though, the best way to engage with the piece is to sit back and let it wash over you, from the quarantine-master with an odd Australian accent to the pompous university deans to the gossipy stage-door keeper. The bits are almost all individually engaging, but I wasn’t always sure what the whole added up to.