Monday, May 27, 2013

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (Scarecrow Theatre) runs at the Tap Gallery from May 29 – June 1. From the short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, adapted and devised by Jonathan Dunk and Travis Ash.

I’m not sure if there’s a name in the canon that’s more terrifying than Dostoyevsky. Whether fairly or unfairly, ol’ Fyodor has acquired a reputation for being scarily super dense. I remember the first time I had to read him – I was an undergraduate, and the name alone intimidated the hell out of me. A shadow of this fear haunts me still, so I was a little apprehensive about going to see The Dream of a Ridiculous Man at the Tap Gallery, an adaptation of Dostoyvesky’s final short story.

My fears were baseless. This is clean, clever, engaging theatre.

I think a big part of the reason people are so scared of Dostoyevsky is the fact that his books are enormous. Seriously, if you drop Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov on your foot, you’ll probably break your toes. An enormous book would seem to signal a big story: one that is complex and dense. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man definitely deals with big stories (in the fifty minutes of the show, we witness the rise and fall of a whole new civilisation) but it is, at its heart, about something very simple and very small: the fears and feelings of one man on one night. This short story – this small story – works beautifully on the stage.

(Warning – here there be spoilers. Read at your peril.)

When we meet our nameless protagonist (played here by Travis Ash), he has just decided to kill himself. He has spent dinner with a bunch of friends who were talking passionately about something (he can’t remember what) and he says nothing, feels nothing: he has nothing in the world besides his conviction that he is a ridiculous man. He has been thinking about suicide for some time, but has only just made the resolve that tonight will be the night when he encounters a little girl. She is desperate for his help. He refuses and returns home, but her plight has awakened something in him that he has not felt for a long time. He falls asleep and has a dream. In the dream, he does commit suicide (in a heavily weighted moment of symbolism, shooting himself in the heart instead of the head), and he finds himself on a whole other planet with another race of people: an unspoiled one. But nothing can remain pure for long...

An explicit tension between knowledge and feeling drives this piece.“Knowledge of the laws of happiness has become more important than happiness itself,” laments the protagonist. In the unspoiled world of his dreams, it is the act of telling the first lie that precipitates the fall. Truth, rather than happiness, becomes the ultimate goal, and because of this, happiness becomes virtually impossible. When he decides to kill himself, the protagonist has reached such a state of apathy that he is not happy, but he is content. This dream inspires passions in him – elation and despair – and he can no longer feel nothing. He at once aspires to happiness and is cognisant of the fact that it is impossible, placing him in an impossible double bind. In effect, he discovers the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism – duhkha, or all life is suffering – but at the same time, discovers life’s inexorability and irresistibility. Even if the battle is futile, he must have hope. He must feel. He must live.

This is obviously quite a philosophically complex piece –the summary above only begins to touch on the many questions it raises – but this production by Scarecrow Theatre is lucid and intelligent. I found Ash’s performance as the protagonist a little one-note at first, but as the piece progressed, he really hit his stride. This might be a small story, but it is such a complex piece of drama. It would be an incredibly easy piece in which to get bogged down, but Jonathan Dunk has directed this piece with a light but precise touch. It is thought-provoking without being dense, managing to be both gritty and hopeful without becoming either dire or cheesy. Most of all, it is not pretentious, which is what I was most afraid of. It is dexterous, lucid storytelling.

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man has only a short run at the Tap Gallery, but it is definitely worth seeing. If nothing else, in less than an hour, it manages to span the creation and destruction of a universe, which is pretty impressive. I’m certainly looking forward to the next offering from Scarecrow Theatre. If it’s anything like this show, it should be very exciting indeed.


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