August Strindberg, who isn’t known for his cheerfulness, was especially depressed while composing what he called the “child of my greatest pain” and considered suicide two months before completing it: “The impulse to die by my own hand grows stronger,” he wrote in his diary. The finished work, A Dream Play, reads a bit like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince standing before Kafka’s law. Agnes (Tina Chilip), the credulous daughter of the god Indra (Brent Yoshikami), descends to the “vaporous, pungent realm” of earth in order to witness the problems of human beings, learning, among other things, that men are neither evil nor good, that torment is the nature of love, and, most importantly, that life is unjust. She encounters over three dozen people, including a poet (Jojo Gonzalez) who is not sure if he has already written or already dreamt what he sees, an officer (David Shih) who has spent “two thousand five hundred and fifty-five days” waiting outside a theater for his love, Victoria, and a quadripartite of academics (Mr. Yoshikami, Siho Ellsmore, Rica de Ocampo, Dax Valdes) who argue about the nature of truth. Before humanity stands a door that is locked and has never been opened, but is believed to contain all the answers to life. If you have ever seen a play by Samuel Beckett, you can probably guess what is behind the door.
NAATCO’s production mostly stays faithful to Strindberg’s text, with the exception of an unfortunate reference to West Side Story and the mention of superfoods. Though the stage directions require spectacular scenery, director Andrew Pang, like Ingmar Bergman before him, has opted for a toned down Dream Play, and the result is enthralling. The stage is comprised of impressionistic, square furniture and unmarked monoliths, the music (reminiscent of Philip Glass’ film scores) minimalist—particularly moving is a toy piano rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” during a scene in which laurel crowns are awarded to students. Furthermore, by casting the same actors in multiple roles, he underlines the play’s universality. Ms. Chilip, a quiet presence on stage, provides an affecting presence as the witness to humanity’s sufferings, never upstaging those she watches, and Mr. Shih is a welcome foil to all the misery; after a tense conversation between a husband and wife about food, clothing, and shelter, he bursts onto the stage to glibly announce, in a voice that always sounds like he is half-singing an operatic ditty, “That always works out, if only one has someone who loves them!”
True, time has not been kind to A Dream Play—it has been succeeded by similar, superior works (like Waiting for Godot) and, in its final twenty minutes or so, begins to lag when subtlety is rejected for didactic speechifying. Still, NAATCO has done a commendable job, and at a time when Broadway is concerning itself with unfunny, uninspiring fluff, this off-Broadway company offers a welcome alternative.