Chicago Theatre Review
Life is a Dream
The Awake – First Floor Theatre
Amidst a churning eddy of traumatic scenes, frantically and desperately narrated by various dreamers, three separate stories tumble forward. Two young men and a young woman speak directly to the audience, sharing their stories, their dreams. Or are they dreams? Are these events that they’re describing actually happening? Is the world we’re now experiencing real? This abstract, nonlinear series of narratives, that seem to run in three different directions, unfold primarily as a collection of monologues. Every so often dialogue and interaction develops between these three characters and eventually their stories converge. In the end they find themselves inhabiting one dream, all relating to each other.
In playwright Ken Urban’s unusual, electrifying drama, people flounder through their individual dreamscapes, a nightmare world populated by unexplained fears and fantasies. This extended one-act premiered three years ago at New York’s 59E59 Off-Broadway theatre and became a Critic’s Pick by the New York Times. Intensely directed by Josh Altman, Urban’s play is finally enjoying its Chicago debut in this finely-tuned, well-staged production enacted by a talented cast of seven actors. The play raises all kinds of issues and poses lots of questions, many of which go unanswered and linger in the air long after the final blackout.
Lauren Nigri’s scenic design grabs theatergoers the moment they enter the intimate third floor playing area. Wooden chairs of all kinds are stacked everywhere, askew and aslant at topsy-turvy angles. They mimic the crooked, cockeyed scenarios that will be played out during the next 80 minutes. Heather Sparling and Robert Hornbostel take Altman’s vision of Urban’s play even further, with some very impressive lighting and a soundtrack designed to enhance, startle and frighten.
Each actor is at his A-game in this production. Daniel Desmaris is the most natural and relatable as Malcolm, a young man lost within an unnerving watery journey aboard a bed, shared with his loving, supportive mother. In real life—or is this another dream?— Malcolm is grief-stricken by the illness that’s left his mother in a coma. Mr. Desmaris creates a likable kid devoted to the one person always there for him. Now he’s faced with making a difficult life-and-death decision. In every moment, Mr. Desmaris evokes empathy for his inescapable situation and the mounting terror he’s experiencing.
Kaiser Ahmed is a charismatic actor who plays Nate as a twitchy, manic young man experiencing his own mountain of terror and dealing with growing paranoia. Having fled his Canadian home, the young man has sought refuge somewhere in the United States. He’s faced brutal capture and interrogation, while employed as a high school substitute teacher. Now Nate is working as a temporary receptionist for a large corporation. That company, Nate slowly discovers, may actually be the Big Brother-like organization that’s trying to capture and control him. Just when life seems to have reached some modicum of normalcy, however, all hell breaks loose once again.
An Eastern European actress named Gabrielle (or is she really someone named Tonya?) struggles to figure out if the cataclysm into which she’s been thrust is real or a dream. Scottie Caldwell, a bright, lovely young actress with scores of Chicago credits, brings sympathy and luster to this role. At first a film actress, this vulnerable young woman suddenly finds she’s become a housewife and mother. She’s thrust into a confusing, subservient existence. Suspecting that her handsome, controlling husband (played with subtle malice by Matt Thinnes) is performing all manner of evil deeds, Gabrielle escapes to the safety of the hospital, where she may or may not serve as a volunteer. She also discovers that her little daughter (a precocious Ada Grey) isn’t quite as sweet and innocent as she seems.
But throughout this fascinating labyrinth of nightmarish experiences we might recall the 17th century playwright, Calderon, whose classic fantasy proclaimed that “Life is a Dream.” Accented by flashes of surprising humor, Ken Urban continually toys with his characters, as well as with the audience. As we experience these three characters’ confusing situations we share in their anxiety and discomfort. Like Malcolm, Nate and Gabrielle, we also long to awaken from this nightmare world and to finally learn what is the truth.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 14-March 12 by First Floor Theater in room 300 of the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at http://firstfloortheater.com
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com