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Strindberg’s ‘Dreamplay’ doesn’t feel edgy in 21st century

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Ponder Goddard plays a young woman trying to understand the meaning of misery in Cutting Ball Theater’s production of August Strindberg’s “A Dreamplay.” (Courtesy Rob Melrose)

Sometimes the revival of plays considered avant-garde in the early and mid-20th century feel more like an intellectual experiment than
what we’d call “experimental” today. That is, they don’t feel exciting and original.

That’s the case with Cutting Ball Theater’s season closer, August Strindberg’s “A Dreamplay.”

It’s not because the eight-actor (and multiple-character) poetic drama isn’t impeccably staged by director Rob Melrose on Michael Locher’s fine, suitably minimalist set.

Or because Paul Walsh’s new translation of the 1901 script isn’t clear, with just the right touch of formality, and fairly tight despite Strindberg’s linguistic excesses.

Nor because the actors, most of whom play several characters apiece, are not skilled at abstract gesture, rapid emotional transitions and stylistic changes.

Indeed, Melrose and Cutting Ball have created a significant niche on the local scene as purveyors of rarely produced European plays of the last century, featuring absurdism and other new forms. The company has staged all of the Swedish playwright’s chamber plays (also translated by Walsh).

“A Dreamplay,” which is completely unlike Strindberg’s most famous play “Miss Julie,” is considered to be the first Western non-naturalistic play, a precursor to both expressionism and surrealism. Strindberg used “dream logic” as the context within which to trace the fraught and sometimes mystifying journey of a young woman, Agnes (gracefully portrayed by a shaven-headed Ponder Goddard).

On the verge of dying, Agnes dreams she is the daughter of the Hindu god Indra and is sent down to earth to learn why everyone is so unhappy.

As she wanders the world, she interacts with a host of characters: a gatekeeper, a lawyer (whom she marries and with whom she has a baby), professors, an amorous young couple, a long-suffering suitor (a particularly affecting and at times delightfully comical Josh Schell) and many more.

Little by little she arrives at a deep understanding of, and compassion for, the nature of human misery, in all its dichotomies and contradictions.

But the characters’ intensely expressed emotions, the magical changes of time and place and the choreographed stage movement — underscored by especially potent and often ominous sound effects by Cliff Caruthers — are in elaborate service of Strindberg’s not-so-revelatory existential truths.

Ultimately “A Dreamplay” feels more like an earnest example from the past rather than an enlightening play for now.

A Dreamplay
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes June 19
Tickets: $10 to $50
Contact: (415) 525-1205, www.cutingball.com

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