A Dream Derailed

Folklore that wears the guise of too many other story techniques

The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s current production of “Dream on Monkey Mountain” is a visual feast, an artistic accomplishment of provocative beauty generated from simple elements and the human form. Its strong visual power and the orchestrated dances, rhythms, and voices create a fascinating texture that is quite stunning to watch.

In the end, though, the sumptuous production values overwhelm the dramatic potential of the piece. The play, which tells (as far as I could gather) the story of a man called to searching and healing through his dreams, is neither wholly a dance performance nor a choral piece.

It is a play and thus relies on the conventions of exposition, character, and situation. In creating the look of the production, director Alfred Preisser has muddied the telling of the story leaving the audience unsure of what the characters are doing. Virtually every scene requires figuring out, so that by the time it’s clear who is who and what’s going on, one feels left behind. The impulse, then, is to sit back and appreciate the piece for its theatricality alone, but that wears thin relatively quickly, undermining what is a fascinating concept and leaving the unfortunate impression that the play is simply tedious and overwrought.

The roots of the story of “Dream on Monkey Mountain” are clearly folkloric, and there are echoes of “Don Quixote,” “Candide,” and even the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer. It would be fascinating to trace the multi-cultural literary themes and allegories that seem alluded to, if one could only pin them down. It is the resulting imbalance between the story and the production that leaves one feeling at once stirred and lost.

This company’s production of “The Blacks” last season was galvanizing both in its theatricality and clarity of a complex piece of theater. In this case, that same sensibility works against “Dream,” perhaps because the play itself is nowhere near as accomplished as what is one of Genet’s most challenging works.

In the opening scene, for example, the ensemble appears on the stage in a kind of choral ritual. They provide a rhythmic undertone to the piece by pounding bamboo poles on the floor. The problem ensues when the pounding, though theatrically powerful, obscures the language. Similarly, the seemingly colonial island accents affected by the cast do more to cloud the narrative than illuminate the story. It becomes impossible to tell where these people are, why the central character Makak wants to get to Africa, how he acquired the ability to heal, or whether his power is not in healing but in creating a kind of hypnotic belief in his powers among the people he encounters. To get the full impact of the play, it would seem that one would want to know what was going on.

As Makak, the central character, the usually wonderful Andre de Shields doesn’t do the production any favors. He plays the character as a scenery chewer of the first order, favoring huge emotions and dramatic outbursts over a more focused and comprehensible portrayal. Yes, there is plenty of style, but the substance is lacking.

Kim Sullivan as Moustique, Makak’s sidekick for want of a better term, fares somewhat better, but other than having a desire to capitalize financially on Makak’s supposed gift, his character is equally unclear. There is a long scene in the first act in which Moustique tries to pass himself off as Makak, only to be attacked by the crowd.

But then, again, perhaps this is all a dream.

There is no denying the talent and theatricality of this company. It is a rare and courageous troupe, but by keeping the audience at arm’s length, this particular dream is scattered and unfulfilled.

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