Fantastical and macabre, Through the 4th Wall ‘s A Dream Within a Dream: Madness at the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Alexandria is a celebration of the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe.
Billed as an immersive “transmedia” experience, the production was previously produced as a part of the site-specific series at Capital Fringe in 2014, winning Best Site-Specific Production that year. I was not able to see it then, but based on the different venue and number of new names on the creative team, I’m guessing this a different beast than the 2014 production.
Eager to escape the building downpour, I finally stumbled in an open door at the Torpedo Factory. This was after trying three others that were locked. (A word to the wise, use the main Union Street entrance even though it looks dark and closed. More signage would have been helpful.) In my haste, I felt a bit as though I’d fallen headlong down the rabbit hole or through the wardrobe (or into some other magical portal of your choosing): I was met with darkness, candles, eerie light, and an ominous welcome to the “Maison de Sante” or asylum. For a second, I thought maybe I had wandered into the wrong spooky occasion. As more patrons filed in and headed to the bar, the small talk and chatter rose, and I began to feel as though we were at a polite society event rather than an immersive theatrical experience. Without warning, figures in grim period costumes and whimsical makeup began to gradually descend the steps and mingle with the audience, and we were off.
I don’t want to give too much away, as with all immersive pieces, I believe not knowing what to expect is half the fun. We learn that Poe has fallen ill after the tragic loss of his wife and needs our help. We are then split into groups and taken through a series of vignettes, meeting the other patients of the Maison de Sante who happen to be characters in Poe’s stories, poems, and even figures from his life. We were invited to interact with them and respond to their questions. The production uses a number of mediums, including projections and dance along with improvisational acting.
As we came back together for the final portion of the piece, it became obvious that each group did not see every possible vignette. I was left wishing I could have met all of the characters, and I wonder why the piece was designed this way. If it is a marketing ploy to entice audience members to return for a second viewing, I’m not sure how one would ensure that they see the vignettes they missed, as the groupings were created at random.
The closing moments of the production were even less clear to me. I believe that we were supposed to be gathering clues throughout the vignettes as to Poe’s whereabouts and the condition of his health, but I don’t feel that I collected enough information, nor did I understand how we were to “help” him. I appreciate Through the 4th Wall’s attempt to put the audience into an active role at the center of the narrative, but I’m not certain that they succeeded – the story was very much able to go on without us. I was also unclear about the larger plotline presented about Poe and his wife at the top and end of the piece. A quick Google search after the show revealed that it was an interpretation of Poe’s complex short story Ligeia. Perhaps a more avid Poe fan would have made the connection.
For a site-specific production, the location is fantastic. Lit sparsely but with great precision by John Farr, the industrial architecture of the Torpedo Factory Arts Center begins to feel like a cold, rundown asylum. Only the occasional glance into a studio or the sight of a more visible sculpture or painting reminded me where I was. But in the dim light, with faint, eerie music playing in the background, these too began to take on a peculiar role as odd specters in this strange world. As we were taken to the nooks and crannies of the building, I was almost able to fall completely under the spell of the show. I would love to see this piece in a space where the designers had full reign (and perhaps a larger budget) to create a fully complete environment.
A Dream Within a Dream: Madness
closes October 31, 2016
Details and tickets
With a cast of over 20, it’s impossible to acknowledge each of the performers (and as mentioned, there were some I never saw). But for those I did, I can say that they were stellar. Each actor was wholly committed to their persona and their story, and their skill at improvisation was clear when, now and then, my slightly rowdy assigned companions threw them a curve ball. Matthew Marcus drew me in as the intense jilted lover from “Song,” and Jameson Freeman was a delight as the Imp of the Perverse from the short story of the same name. I also enjoyed Kaitlin Kemp as Poe’s seemingly innocent younger sister, Rosalie.
Coming in around 90 minutes, this show is not for those who would prefer a less active experience. We never sat, or even stood still for very long: going up and down stairs numerous times and even chasing one actor/guide as he ran from us. I wonder if Through the 4th Wall has a plan in place for those needing more accessible options. And as with all immersive, improvisational work, this production requires the audience to enter with an open, playful mind. Or at least enjoy a themed cocktail from the bar before embarking.
Dream Within a Dream: Madness will definitely be enjoyed most by those more familiar with Poe and his work, but even those less-knowledgeable will enjoy the experience and spectacle.
This was certainly a dream from which I did not wish to wake.
A Dream Within a Dream: Madness. Creator/Director/Producer: Jennifer Schwed. Creator/Writer/Director/Producer: Doug Bradshaw. Choreographer: Matthew Cumbie. Associate Producer/Stage Manager: Christina Helm. Lighting Design: John Farr. Set Design: Anne Dorman. Assistant Director: Bette Cassatt. Theatrical Consultant: Wendy Snow Walker. Social Media/Prop Master: Courtney von Bostel. Cast: Ian Blackwell Rogers, Bette Cassatt, Victoria Reinsel, Alexandra Tydings, John LoPorto, Sam Horning, Kendall Helblig, Elizabeth Keith, Leta Hall, Robert Heinly, Lily Kerrigan, Erik Harrison, Greg Atkin, Devin Horne, Emily Sucher, Jameson Freeman, Alexandra Johnson, Doug Robinson, Janine Baumgardner, Robert Sachelli, Kaitlin Kemp, Matthew Marcus, Nerissa Hart, Paul Donahoe, Jeannie Melcher, Madeline Farris. Dancers: Janine Baumgartner, Kristen Briscoe, Haylee Green, Sam Horning, Morgan Iannazzo, Bob Sacheli, Rebecca Weiss . Created by Through the 4th Wall . Presented by The Torpedo Factory Art Center . Reviewed by Sarah Scafidi.