Theater Review: Impossible 'Dream/Awake' weaves a tangled web at The Whit

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PITTSFIELD — The development process of a new play can be long and arduous. There comes a time when it moves from table-read to staged reading to fully staged workshop production; perhaps more than one before it's ready for audience and critics as a finished work.

Developed at Berkshire Playwrights Lab's Berkshire Voices workshop, where it had a staged reading at St. James Place in Great Barrington, playwright J. Peter Bergman's "Dream/Awake" is at the Whitney Center for the Arts in what Bergman and Monica Bliss, artistic director of The Whit, have described as a workshop presentation, albeit fully mounted and staged; on its feet, sans scripts in hand, for paying audiences and, at Bergman and Bliss' open invitation, critics.

Truth? Although, in an effort to develop and better shape his play, Bergman is soliciting comments from audience members at after-performance talk-backs, neither he nor Bliss is doing "Dream/Awake" any favors; not at this point in the play's development.

Bergman's impossible "Dream/Awake," which too often feels like a therapeutic exercise, focuses on a man named Gwynned Vaughan (Joshua Bishoff), whose life, real and imagined, is in somewhat of a turmoil. Dreams involving surrogates for his mother (played by Amy Hausknecht with pounding inauthenticity); Cheri, a woman who dances ("beautifully," Gwynned says, even though, as played by Patrice Metcalf, she does little more than roll her outstretched hands and arms in wavelike motion as she glides across the cramped stage and, at one point, up the center aisle of the Whit's gallery/performing space); his boyhood self (Liam Conor Reynolds); and his wife, Constance (Hollie Zegman in an incredibly determined performance), who first appears as a blonde-wigged Betty Boop.

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"Dream/Awake" alternates between Gwynned's bizarre dreams — which conjure his therapist, Dr. Daniel Dravis (a tall, hirsute Brandon Lee), in a revealing jumpsuit and bared women's breasts — and the day-to-day reality of his life, which, in addition to frustrating sessions with Dravis, includes fevered discussions with his growingly impatient wife of 7 years.

It's not until Gwynned insists on recounting to Constance a fairy tale told to him by his mother that issues that have been as entangled as the sheets and blankets on Gwynned and Constance's bed inexplicably come undone and resolved.

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There is no context for any of this. We are plunged into Gwynned's fevered world right from the get-go. Among the chief issues with Bergman's impossible "Dream/Awake" is that neither playwright nor director give us any reason to care about Gwynned's dilemma let alone invest emotionally or intellectually,in its outcome. We are given scant information about Gwynned and Bishoff's performance goes no farther than the three notes Bergman has given him to play.

Protestations notwithstanding in the director's statement that appears in the printed program— "I never intended to direct this play," Bergman writes — the fact remains that he did. Director Bergman, it turns out, is no friend to playwright Bergman. The Whit's limited stage is cramped with the furniture pieces that designate the play's locations — a kitchen table with two chairs; a couch, doorway, floor lamp and chair behind the couch representing Dr. Dravis' office; and a massive double bed in which Bishoff spends a great deal of time tossing and turning and playing out his dream fantasies.

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This inexpert production's overall rhythm is erratic, with uncomfortable gaps between scenes.

In a theatrical venture that is so sorely in need of illumination at all levels, it is somewhat emblematic that Joseph Sicotte's stage lighting is, at best, patchy; more often than not missing the actors his lights are meant to reveal.

"You can't leave me like this," a frustrated Gwynned yells at one point. "I don't know where I am. I don't know where I'm going."

Neither do we.


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