‘A Dozen Dreams’ Review: Eerie Memories Bring Magic to the Mall

Twelve exquisitely designed installations capture the fears, hopes and reveries shared on audio by 12 women playwrights.

A room depicting Martyna Majok’s dream is part of the En Garde Arts production of “A Dozen Dreams” at Brookfield Place.

A room depicting Martyna Majok’s dream is part of the En Garde Arts production of “A Dozen Dreams” at Brookfield Place.Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

By Maya PhillipsMay 20, 2021
New York Times

A dark room with a naked bulb hanging over a headless, but dressed, seated mannequin. A nightmare room of shattered glass. A room of Tetris-ed cardboard boxes. A wishful room of sunrise or sunset, depending on your disposition.

Part art installation, part immersive theater, En Garde Arts’s endlessly intriguing “A Dozen Dreams” takes audience members on a self-guided audio tour through the pandemic dreams of 12 female playwrights, rendered in a dozen rooms exquisitely designed to replicate the surreal, chameleonic chambers of the mind at rest.

Created by Anne Hamburger, who conceived it along with John Clinton Eisner and Irina Kruzhilina, “A Dozen Dreams” begins in the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, a high-end mall in downtown Manhattan and the most unlikely setting for such a wonderfully strange work. (The show is being presented by Arts Brookfield.)

Audience members in singles or pairs are given an iPhone preprogrammed with the dream sketches, written and performed by the playwrights. (Each performance, taken in on headphones, is roughly 50 minutes long and free; reservations are staggered in 20 minute slots.)

Initially “A Dozen Dreams” doesn’t look like much: Among the towering palm trees and the lifeless luxury is a small room, the inside of which is designed as a dilapidated theater.

Ellen McLaughlin’s installation includes a model of a theater without an audience.

Ellen McLaughlin’s installation includes a model of a theater without an audience.Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

This is Ellen McLaughlin’s dream, which is one that many viewers may relate to: She is pushed onto a stage but doesn’t have any clue as to what she’s performing.

It’s a perfect beginning to this kind of somnambulist theater, where the subconscious is the star, trying to make sense of everyday anxieties and concerns while life has been irrevocably changed by a global pandemic.

You don’t stay here long; at the end of McLaughlin’s dream you’re guided by the stage manager to some hidden part of Brookfield. A back hallway leads to a larger labyrinth of interconnected rooms where live the dreams of the other 11 playwrights, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok and the former artistic director of the McCarter Theater Center, Emily Mann, as well as the off-Broadway writers Andrea Thome, Mona Mansour, Ren Dara Santiago, Rehana Mirza, Caridad Svich, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Liza Jessie Peterson, Sam Chanse and Lucy Thurber.

The vast differences among them creates a captivating patchwork of memories, reveries, and wishes — and it’s impossible to guess what fantastical world you’ll encounter next.

Andrea Thome’s childhood home in Wisconsin is depicted in her piece, entitled “House Dreaming.”

Andrea Thome’s childhood home in Wisconsin is depicted in her piece, entitled “House Dreaming.”Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Thome’s “House Dreaming” invites the audience into a fragmented version of her childhood home in Madison, Wis. Bookshelves reveal Hesse and Dickens and Woolf, while a teddy bear, a hardcover book and a blue ceramic mug sit on a windowsill of what looks like a child’s bedroom.

From inside, the panes of glass reveal a snowy scene, wiry tree branches reaching in every direction. As Thome recalls the “hickory, oak, the tall, tall pine,” their stately trunks frame the space, some even hosting little dioramas of living rooms and bedrooms overgrown with flowers and trees.

“Who are you when you lose home?” Thome asks near the end of her segment, one that represents “A Dozen Dreams” at its best: whimsical yet still grounded, reflective without being didactic. But as with any anthology, there are opposite extremes. Peterson and Thurber opt for a more political (and pedantic) angle, sharing their hopes for change in a divided nation after the Black Lives Matter protests, while Santiago and Dickerson-Despenza fly off into the abstract with stream-of-consciousness poetry.

Most of the installations hit a sweet spot in the middle, with the audio performances mellowing the tone, as though each playwright were speaking to a friend. In “The Death of Dreams,” Mirza recounts her dream of moving lightly, with playful asides, while still having sobering moments of introspection. (“It’s almost like we know we can’t ask for much anymore, not even in our daydreams.”) In “Secret Catastrophe” Chanse speaks with a similar nonchalance, accented with moments of dry humor (“I’m trying to get to Providence — the city, not the concept.”).

Other playwrights, however, lean so heavily into the dream theme that the performances feel affected. Svich’s dream of the ocean is glacial, a sleepy monotonous lull of language. Dickerson-Despenza, who recently won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, brings her signature lyricism to her segment, which is more percussion than text, an indecipherable tangle of metaphors and images.

But even in the segments with the strongest writing, the words always play second fiddle to the inspired dream spaces, courtesy of the production’s outstanding designers, Rena Anakwe, Brittany Bland, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and Kruzhilina.

Multicolored lighting columns are a focal point in Sam Chanse’s “Secret Catastrophe.”

Multicolored lighting columns are a focal point in Sam Chanse’s “Secret Catastrophe.”Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

With a mannequin, a staticky TV set and weblike curtains of black yarn, they bring an unnerving sense of horror to Majok’s dreamscape. And in Chanse’s dream the brilliantly lit geometric columns, which change from cool blues to springy pastels, recall some fantastical other-world, perhaps from “The Dark Crystal.”

Throughout the production, it’s the details that delight: several clocks all set to the time 10:10; tiny portholes in a wall revealing a Lilliputian table with tiny bottles of alcohol, miniature doughnuts and other scaled-down domestic details; an illuminated fissure in the floor like a living fault line.

In fact, there’s so much to see that “A Dozen Dreams” can overload the senses, making it likely you’ll miss something — an excuse to revisit it. And just as time follows its own logic in dreams, so too does this experience seem to move impossibly quickly.

The rapid prattle of some of the playwrights, like Majok, is too hard to catch while you’re taking in the sights. And the muddle of narratives like Mansour’s — about a prom night and a performance and a family she once nannied for — doesn’t make things any easier to follow.

The self-guided aspect also presents a challenge. Most of the rooms are separated by curtains, and a few arrows and some lighting help point the way, but the production could do with more signs and directions. I went twice because I fully enjoyed the experience, but also to catch what I had missed the first time, especially as I hesitantly wandered from room to room, unsure if I was going the right way.

For such an imaginative production, “A Dozen Dreams” fizzles out near the end, with Mann’s final installation failing to leave a lasting impression. But being there led me back to my own recent reveries. After a spate of protests I dreamed that Black citizens — me and my family included — were herded and enslaved. I dreamed of my childhood home. I had a recurring dream of the apocalypse.

In penetrating moments of loneliness during lockdown, I had nightmares of being lost in labyrinthine hallways and trapped in rooms by dangerous men.

That the talented women behind “A Dozen Dreams” can capture just a sliver of those emotions is no small accomplishment. Last year I learned how a room can come to represent utter isolation. In this production I learned how a room can represent any time or place — the limitless reach of our imagination. As McLaughlin asks, “What dreams are we headed for tonight?”

A Dozen Dreams
Through May 30 at Brookfield Place, Manhattan; engardearts.org

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