August Strindberg (1849-1912) never said that. But he could have. Easily. The thoroughly self-absorbed artist embodied both the best and worst qualities of the recently departed era, which, at least in artistic terms, he helped to usher in. The peripatetic artist was an accomplished painter whose work combined the palette of Van Gogh, the bleakness of Munch, and the depth of Georgia O'Keeffe's mid-century cloud paintings. He was an accomplished poet, novelist, and playwright, in addition to being a prolific correspondent with over 7,000 letters to his credit. In almost every case the subject matter was, to some degree, himself; at least to the extent that he saw himself as an abstracted Everyman. His pessimism was extreme. His essentially conservative values were at complete odds with his progressive intellect: He despised narrow-mindedness almost as much as the idea of liberated women, favored unilateral disarmament, and praised extravagance as the most forgivable of all vices. Though he claimed that the Bible was his favorite book, the closest thing he ever found to genuine spiritual comfort was the Eastern concept that all the world is an illusion, all of life is suffering. "This seems to me the answer to the riddle of life," he wrote in his diary, adding, "All day I read Buddhism." When asked by his most frequent interviewer (himself) what his most defining character trait was, Strindberg showed an acute self-awareness. "This strange blending of the deepest melancholy and the most astonishing light-heartedness," he answered.
Nowhere are these seemingly antithetical values more evident than in A Dream Play, his drearily comical, pre-absurdist ode to life in all its sucky splendor. Rhodes' guest director Miki Whittles Shelton has mixed the oil and water elements of A Dream Play and, using her own slyly sardonic sense of humor as an emulsifier, improved upon Strindberg's dark, occasionally incomprehensible whine.
A Dream Play is Waiting for Godot as romantic comedy: A young man waits outside a theater for his fiancée, who never shows. "Oh, Victoria," he calls again and again, holding out a lover's nosegay. But victory is an elusive and illusory thing and by the play's end the young man's flowers have taken on a decidedly funereal connotation. But this is merely the central image of a play that spirals out into infinity like a galaxy. Characters split and multiply, becoming many characters, only to converge again. The logic is the logic of a dream, where anything can happen and even the most commonplace events of life -- "this long boring walk through the shadow land of memory," as Strindberg once described it -- are warped beyond proportion.
A Dream Play tells the story of Agnes, a daughter of the Vedic god Indra who has been sent to Earth to study humans, to observe their plight and participate in it fully. Her findings are not surprising. She discovers disappointment, despair, and, worst of all, that in order to live we are forced to inflict pain on those around us. The only hope for salvation, it would seem, resides inside a small locked cupboard, and throughout the play characters debate the pros and cons of opening said cupboard in order to plunder its soothing treasures. It's as if the fear of disappointment has eliminated hope, and the fear of shattering illusions has superseded the quest for knowledge.
"I believe the door must not be opened because it contains dangerous truths," says the Dean of Philosophy. "What is truth?" asks the Dean of Medicine. "Anything that can be proved by two witnesses," answers the Dean of Law. And so it goes.
The willy-nilly disjointedness of A Dream Play has been tamed by Shelton's highly stylized, impossibly precise choreography. Likewise, the inclusion of music by indie (anti) rock heroes the Magnetic Fields (featuring former Memphian L.D. Beghtol) creates an ideal context for Strindberg's doting take on the great disappointments of life and love. Hearing Stephin Merritt croon, "How fucking romantic," like George Gershwin on heroin, just when it seems that one of the characters has finally found respite in another's arms, is as depressing as it is inspirational. And if this sounds contradictory, so it is.
The student actors define their characters physically by assuming specific postures and repeating specific, idiosyncratic gestures. The result is a beautiful hybrid consisting of one part vaudeville clown show and two parts Kabuki dance theater. It is methodical, mechanical, and at times mesmerizing, which is alternately a good and bad thing. The staging, though deliciously simple, is often so visually appealing and so evenly paced that it is easy to get lost in the groove and lose track of the fractured story. And while the students go to great lengths to define their characters physically, the lines are all delivered with a metered sameness that, over time, becomes a pleasantly numbing buzz. That said, it is still quite an achievement given the extremely difficult material.
A Dream Play by August Strindberg plays Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre through December 2nd.