Wake Me When It's Over 

Cleveland Public Theatre gets caught napping in Dreams

Who knows what dreams signify? To wit: What the hell did it mean, in the actual dream I once had, when I concluded an advertising presentation to a software company by unveiling a life-size police car carved out of boiled ham?

But while we may all fall victim to such weirdness on occasion, we won't get any further elucidations from 13 Most American Dreams, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. While the staging of this production by director Pandora Robertson is often spellbinding, at times inducing its own dream state, the content is less than incisive.

This work of devised theater by Robertson and her company attempts to lead us through the dream worlds we all know so well and understand so little. But they clearly want to avoid the familiar tropes of the same old dreams: no standing onstage naked or falling through the air here.

Instead, the short vignettes that make up this one-hour show move from one obscure, fragmentary word jumble to another. There are references to cats swimming in puddles and fish flying out of toilets. At times, those words come out as tiresome or pretentious: "I'm looking for something meaningful. I'm on an inner journey. I can't understand my existence."

There are also some recurring themes, as are prevalent in all dream portfolios. In this instance, these include references to Star Wars and letters of the alphabet that apparently float in space — though apparently not in the flight path of the Millennium Falcon.

Unfortunately, there isn't much sex — which eliminates a large and sticky chunk of most people's dreams — and very little humor. Indeed, some of the biggest laughs came in response to lines that seemed to channel the audience's occasional bafflement, as when one performer declares, "I'm way too literal for this!"

It's also a bit too easy to mimic the shredded nature of dreams by simply constructing nonsensical dialogue. That's playing theatrical tennis with the net down and the lines erased.

Setting the words aside, the visual landscape created by Robertson, set designer Ian Petroni, and lighting designer Joe Burke is often captivating. The small CPT storefront theater stage is dominated by a rickety structure constructed out of scrap lumber, sort of a carpenter's nightmare.

The five actors — Amy Compton, Caitlin Lewins, Benjamin Gregg, Anne McEvoy, and Darius Stubbs — perform with focus and intensity. At times, they tremble and stutter-step as if possessed, just as we all are captive in our dreams.

Various video images are projected on top of the actors and the stage. By utilizing loose planks and a large sheet of gauzy fabric, the players convey various dreamy scenarios.

This technique is particularly arresting when a video image of Gregg is thrown onto the muslin while he stands behind it. It's a melding of reality and nocturnal fantasy, and it is at once beautiful, fascinating, and disturbing.

As for the "American" dreams referred to in the title, there is a passing reference to money, fame, and such. But most of the play is not recognizably of this culture in particular, unless you think we are solely defined by our inability to explore a thought for more than two minutes at a time.

American Dreams is the second play in CPT's Director Fellows program, which encourages new and emerging directors in the area. And that is a splendid idea.

That said, here's my latest dream: That all directors new and old become aware of the fact that, while challenging theatrical pieces are most welcome, there is a caveat. In order to communicate thoroughly — and as is pointed out in the show — "You have to let someone in on the joke."

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