Strangers in a new world

Student artists slide into the surreal imagination at the heart of August Strindberg's illusory drama, the TDM fall production of A Dream Play.

By Samantha Neville '19

In the Theater, Dance and Media department production of A Dream Play, Agnes, the main character and the daughter of the goddess Indra, descends to Earth to understand humanity and human suffering. She must learn how to do simple actions such as sit in chairs, dance and wave. The surrealistic style of the play reflects playwright August Strindberg’s sense of life as an illusion.

In the scene where Agnes falls from heaven, as Karoline Xu ‘17, who plays Agnes, explained, she eats an apple.

From the set of "A Dream Play"
“(She eats the apple) with joy, with despair, with confusion, with hope, with yearning. All these emotions culminate in a large statement about what it means to be human, but at the base of all this, at the beginning, from which everything springs, there is one small seed,” Xu said.

Many playwrights have adapted Strindberg’s “dream logic” play. The TDM adaptation, which runs Nov. 11-18 at Farkas Hall, is based on Ingmar Bergman’s version with tweaks by Daniel Kramer, visiting professor in the TDM department and artistic director of English National Opera in London. He is also directing the production.

Xu says the “dream logic” de-familiarizes familiar actions by showing them through Agnes’ eyes. She calls Kramer’s approach very physical – perhaps based on his background in clown school.

“He’s very brilliant and very generous as both a director and a person as well,” Xu said. “I’m learning a lot about visual composition, and what it means to ‘sound,’ and what it means to move through space in relationship to other people, but also being aware of yourself half the time.”

Xu said that working with Kramer has made her aware that a scene can rest on a single moment.

Karoline Xu '17

When Xu’s character Agnes gets to Earth, she observes “how the other characters in the show actually like go through major events in their life like falling in love, and like having their first job, et cetera, and then also dying,” said Xu. “People die several times in the show, so she gets to experience the arc of all the suffering that comes with that.”

Xu isn’t the only one developing new muscles with this production. Thomas Peterson ’18 is assistant director of the play. He, too, has been thrust into a new world with the production, but on a more practical level. The difference between this project and previous projects he has worked on is that he is directing A.R.T. Institute students.

“Being a college student assistant director, like running breakout rehearsals [with graduate students] is a change – an exciting one for sure. But it’s different than being like: OK, here are my friends who are also sophomores, juniors, whatever, and we’re just going to get together,” Peterson said. “These people are in school for this, this is

Thomas Peterson '18
their precious time, I am going to be totally professional with them.”

Xu said that she has been the main character in theatrical productions before, but never in this way. As the main character, she’s essentially on stage the entire time. Also, Kramer’s changes to the Bergman script open the play to inclusive casting. For instance, the poet in the play, who interprets the events that transpired, is a woman of color instead of a man.

“In Strindberg’s version of the play women have very little agency at all basically,” Peterson said. “There has been a concerted effort to change this.”

Director Daniel Kramer
However, even last week the script was still evolving, and Xu said that Kramer had warned her she wouldn’t know who her character was for sure until the opening night. And of course that’s the way theater can go – almost like the very dream the play underscores. 

“Agnes is very dynamic, very hopeful and inspiring as a character,” said Xu. “She is a character who is willing to give all of herself to strangers and to a world that she doesn’t belong to.”

It’s likely that audience members will also find themselves, like Agnes, Xu and Peterson in an exciting place: strangers in the new world of A Dream Play