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UI's A Dream Play attempts to explain human suffering

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | MARCH 07, 2013 5:00 AM

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In dreams, even the most absurd or logic-defying feats can feel commonplace. This surreal sense is present in A Dream Play, the University of Iowa’s newest Mainstage Production, full of seemingly random characters, action, music, and fantasy.

A Dream Play, based on the 1901 play by August Strindberg, will open at 8 p.m. today in the Theater Building’s Thayer Theater and run through March 16. Caryl Churchill’s modern adaptation follows an angelic god named Agnes who travels the Earth in an attempt to explain human suffering.

Agnes’ encounters with more than 60 different characters — portrayed by 12 actors — call into question some of the most basic and complex mysteries about life.

Director David Hanzal, a third-year M.F.A. candidate in directing, said he found the expressionist text to be frustrating but compelling to contemplate, making it an appealing subject for his thesis production.

“I think that the play is shaped like an onion: as you unravel the onion and try to answer the question, you realize it’s much more complex than you could have ever imagined,” he said. “The closer you get to an answer, the further away you are. Every time I read it, I kept discovering new things about it, and I found a mirror to my own personal crises.”

He said performing the play is far from straightforward. The show operates in “dream logic,” he said, bending reality rather than following a linear story line. In the forward to his work, Strindberg said in A Dream Play, “time and place do not exist … characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve, and merge.”

“This is a play that’s considered to be a classic but impossible to stage, so it’s rarely produced in a commercial setting,” Hanzal said. “Given the freedom you have in an academic environment, I thought this is my opportunity as an artist to really investigate this text from a production standpoint.”

With the challenging format, he and his cast drew from their experience and imagination to depict Strindberg’s dream-like world of human conflict intermingling with dance, music, and blips in time and space.

“Very rarely, you can stop and question what’s going on,” said UI senior Alyssa Perry, who plays Agnes. “As actors, we just have to be open to believing things as they come at us. I think the surrealism is a commentary on life itself. In life, things are thrown at us, and we have to accept them.”

Although dream logic drives the show’s structure, Hanzal said, its themes have roots in religion and literature.

“In the play, there are clear influences from philosophy, Christianity, Buddhism, agnosticism, and fairy tales,” he said. “Agnes herself reminds you just as much of Jesus Christ as Alice and Wonderland.”

Junior Emily Hinkler said she had to channel her creativity to embody 11 different characters with very different backgrounds, from an innocent princess to a dominatrix.

“It’s like a marathon — it’s combining everything I have in me,” said Hinkler, who also dances and sings in the show. “It’s a collaboration of the highest form of art possible; with dance, singing, music, and acting, the play is a huge sinuous of art, and it’s really cool and imaginative.”

Junior Thomas Eslinger said art imitates reality in the play.

“The play shows suffering in ways that are hard to capture in words, so the realism and surrealism blend really well in that aspect,” he said. “It shows a complete picture of what we feel on a day-to-day basis. There’s lots of love and love lost, and those are universal concepts and themes that everybody can grasp.”

Hanzal said that though the fantastical nature of A Dream Play makes it “rigorous,” unconventional theater, the “bizarre” quality makes the show all the more meaningful.

“It’s asking questions that I think people have asked themselves,” he said. “It’s not heavy-handed — there are moments of seriousness and moments of joy, just like in dreaming and in a human lifetime. What’s important is taking something that’s impossible and figuring out what the essence is and staging that moment.”

As Strindberg wrote in the original text of A Dream Play: “Earth is not clean, life is not good, men are not evil nor are they good. They live as they can, a day at a time.”

What: A Dream Play, Mainstage Series
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and March 13-16, 2 p.m. March 10
Where: Theater Building Thayer Theater
Admission: $5 for UI students, $17 for nonstudents, $12 for 65 and older, $10 for youth 17 and younger


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