Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Sweet Dreams, Alfie
Savage Umbrella is a collaborative theater company that presents ensemble created works. Sweet Dreams, Alfie began as a meditation on how connections form between people who experience the world in very different ways, which segues into the notion of experiencing other's lives through dreams, finally shifting from dreams to nightmares, and the dread beneath them. Russ Dugger, a core member of Savage Umbrella's company, is credited with having conceived the play. Dugger also performs the lead role of Alfie.
Back to that bare room. The audience is seated in two concentric rings of chairs, only 23 seats in all, looking outward toward the room's corners and walls. In one corner is a mattress within a massive bedframe, leaving a gap between bed and frame. Moving clockwise, a washstand stands along the wall, with shaving foam and a razor in reach. Continuing clockwise, the next corner houses a spare office desk with a phone and computer keyboard on top. In the next corner we find a tall bistro table, the type people bring their drinks to as they stand and chat at a bar or coffee shop. Atop this table is a coffee carafe and Styrofoam cups. Finally, we come to the fourth corner where a chair sits beside two banker boxes stacked one on the other.
All of this is white, totally stark whitethe bed, wash stand, desk, phone, coffee carafe, bankers boxeseverything. Draped behind these set pieces are ceiling-to-floor sheets of white plastic sheeting (a part in the sheeting allows the audience to enter), with enough space between them and the walls to form passageways.
This is Alfie's world. As we are seated, swells of electronic music, its volume and pitch rising and falling, create intimations of psychic energy beyond our ken. The room suddenly goes dark, no gradual dimming of lights. From behind the white sheeting emerge two figures, one in pursuit, the other screaming as he runs to avoid capture, circling the perimeter of the room until the lights come on over the bed and Alfie rises with a howl from under the white sheets. This nightmare is over.
Rising from bed, Alfie, dressed in a white undershirt and dazzlingly white boxer shorts, walks clockwise to the washstand, attempts to shave as he watches his mirror image on the white sheet, then on to his office, still only in his underwear, where Oswald (who also goes by Ozzie, Oz, and the Wizard), the office techie and class clown, berates him for being late, chides him about his low productivity, and eggs him on to join the crowd for drinks and fun after hours. Alfie admits he has been unable to sleep, and he is unable to focus on his work.
The next station is the coffee bistro, where Alfie meets up with his girlfriend Rosie. Six months ago, Alfie moved out of the apartment he shared with Rosie and their cat Mr. Whiskers. Alfie does not want to break up, but needs to work through some issues alone. Rosie has endured patiently, but clearly seeks some assurance as to their future. The last station around the room is Alfie's apartment. His sister Alice is visiting, sharing bad take-out Chinese food, and concerned about Alfie's lack of contact with family and the unexplained move into this stark apartment.
The cycle continues for the hour-long play, Alfie rotating from the bed and its plague of nightmares, the washstand, where shaving becomes an increasingly bloody affair, Ozzie and the office, Rosie and the coffee stand, and eating Chinese food with Alice. The nightmares take place in the spaces behind the white sheeting, as well as in front of Alfie, and he becomes increasingly exhausted, terrified, withdrawn and bloodied. It becomes difficult for him to know where reality end and the dreams begin. Even Mr. Whiskers enters his nightmares.
We experience the way in which free-floating anxiety and depression can drag a man who seems to have many assets down a never-ending sinkhole. Issues are raised ... is it his dead-end job, or the meds, or his parents, or inability to commit to Rosie? But the terror seem to have a life of its own that has taken possession of Alfie, owing nothing to his past or present circumstances.
Bringing this to life is a tall order. Russ Dugger is astonishing in his portrayal of the growing anguish with which his days pass. His halting speech, the way he draws his body in to itself, his distracted denials that anything is wrong as he hallucinates demons and wakes with sweats and screams, embody a descent into depressive hell. Dugger's performance brings Alfie's terror and heartbreak to riveting life.
The three other actors play their parts in Alfie's nightmares to a tee. Mark Sweeney's Ozzie a know-it-all, overly familiar party-seeking co-worker who would put anyone's teeth on edge. Amber Bjork plays Rosie with tenderness and great patience for Alfie's affliction, but not as a martyr or pushover. Allison Witham is terrific as the upbeat, devoted kid sister who is there to help but doesn't really know where to begin.
Laura Leffler-McCabe, Savage Umbrella's Artistic Director, directs Sweet Dreams, Alfie as a seamless cycle of ritualized nightmares and routines, none of which bring anything but despair to poor Alfie. The design teamlights, sound, props and effectsall contribute to the continuous feeling of a waking nightmare, their work perfectly meshed with the demands of the play.
Sweet Dreams, Alfie is a window into a state of mind. It is not a play in the sense of a plot with a beginning, middle and end. Indeed, we come in to Alfie's torment in the middle, with absolutely no clue as to how it began, and leave uncertain of how it will end. It offers no parting wisdom or ray of hope, but gives us a chilling sense of how it feels to be dealt afflictions of the mind, conditions that are difficult to talk about or even admit to, and which too often go unrecognized and untreated. For that reason, for those with the stamina to live, even for an hour, in Alfie's nightmare, it is an important, well-wrought work of theater.
Sweet Dreams, Alfie continues at SPACE, 550 Vandalia Street, Suite 306, Saint Paul, through October 24, 2015. Tickets: sliding scale from $12.00 to $25.00, for tickets and information go to www.savageumbrella.org.
Creator: Russ Dugger, with Savage Umbrella and the ensemble; Director and Costume Design: Laura Leffler-McCabe; Lighting Design: Adam Raine; Sound Design: Spencer Witter; Props and Effects Design: Heidi Megan Clark; Stage Manager: Jessica Spivey.
Cast: Amber Bjork (Rosie), Russ Dugger (Alfie), Mark Sweeney (Oswald), Allison Witham (Alice).