There are probably lots of reasons August Strindberg's "A Dreamplay" is rarely produced. It's long. It has a huge cast. And it calls for some unusual special effects, including a castle that grows and the arrival on earth of the daughter of God.
None of these, however, have deterred the Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore from producing "A Dreamplay" as its season opener. And the production -- adapted by the theater's producing director, H.P. Albarelli, Jr., and directed by Elizabeth Berman -- has much to recommend it.
To start with the special effects, they are handled simply and with finesse by Berman and her 12-member cast, most of whom play multiple roles. The castle is represented by a mound of actors who surround the castle's inhabitant and extend their limbs as the structure supposedly grows.
As to the daughter of God, she is played by wide-eyed, optimistic Catheryn Brockett, who stands on an orange crate and questions her father about the writhing, complaining earthlings below. Her father -- an Eastern diety in the original, but here, closer to the Western model -- would seem trickier to portray. This problem is circumvented by having several actors speak his lines, instead of giving him a specific identity.
But let's go back a minute. It's no fluke that I described the daughter as optimistic. This may be Strindberg, but it's late Strindberg and has a strong female protagonist and a relatively hopeful outlook and ending.
The expressionistic plot is structured like a dream, with characters appearing, disappearing and assuming different personae (which makes multiple casting a logical choice). Though this can be a bit confusing, it works if you keep the dream structure in mind and just go with the flow -- an approach enhanced by Berman's fluid direction.
Working from several translations, including the one used by Ingmar Bergman in 1970, Albarelli has fashioned an abridged text that also incorporates some of Strindberg's other writing. The result focuses on the daughter's interaction with three central characters: The young man (Tony Reda) in the castle, who has been waiting seven years for his fiancee; a lawyer (Joe Riley), whom the daughter marries; and a poet (Jacob Zahniser). Though it is one of the production's less clear elements, it seems likely that the poet is the one dreaming this play, since he is the only human eventually capable of seeing a glimmer of hope.
The action is accompanied by on-stage percussionist Pete Pakas, whose drumbeats punctuate the rhythm of the language and add to the overall feeling of unreality. In keeping with this feeling, many of the actors wear exaggerated makeup, and several of the more successful performances are also exaggerated -- particularly those of Dana Whipkey and Michele Baylin -- offering an effective contrast with Brockett's sweet, understated depiction of the daughter.
This contrast suggests that, while humans may have been created in the image of God, they have drifted considerably. And though the positive-minded, do-gooder daughter of God is disheartened by what she finds, hope is restored through the vision of the poet, undoubtedly a stand-in for Strindberg. If this seems a far cry from Strindberg's doom-and-gloom drama, well, that's why this play and production are more like a dream than a nightmare.
Where: Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore, 908 Washington Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 5
Call: (410) 727-1847