A red carpet stretches across a vast, empty room, with old televisions playing silent static lined up on either side. At the end of this path, a series of steps take the audience down to a darkened set of rooms. At some point along that walk downstairs, the environment changes drastically – it’s warmer for one thing, and there’s a sleepy, pleasant smell to the place, a deep, low hum draws you in.
An abstract adaptation of the 18th-century novel by the same name, Jim Findlay’s Dream of the Red Chamber forgoes traditional dramatic structure and focuses instead on the experience, trying as best as it can to conjure actual dreams for its audience. Audience members are provided with small beds and encouraged to fall in and out of sleep during the free performance, coming and going as they like.
After taking off your shoes in the downstairs lobby, you enter a large, rectangular performance space, dimly lit and full of ethereal sounds. Soft, translucent curtains create maze-like partitions, occupied by single beds.
In each corner there is a raised stage on which sit furniture and props; at any time, they may or may not be in use by performers. In the center of the room, a cylindrical cut-out surrounding a hanging bulb rotates on a turntable, creating dizzying light play and shadows on the surrounding walls.
The production is divided into segments, each lasting roughly 15 minutes. Behind the scenes, a deck of cards, which have been shuffled before the production, lists scenes from the novel. A randomly chosen card dictates the content of each segment, until a bell rings to indicate that segment is over, and a new card is drawn.
Different colored lights pulse and rotate above in a repeating pattern unique to each scene. Similarly, the sound changes with each segment, but maintains an overall dreamlike quality. Most of the time this is a simple melody, only a few seconds long, played on repeat over a sustained low note.
The scenes themselves are interpreted with varying degrees of abstraction – though even the most concrete among them are still very dreamlike. In some segments, the characters speak lines from the novel; in others, they interact wordlessly. Sometimes they repeatedly perform some mundane task: brushing the hair of a wig, for example. In one scene, two actors stare into a camera for several minutes, their image projected on the walls and curtains and on the televisions scattered throughout the space. Actors not needed in the current scene occasionally play out a side performance on another stage, or else dance lightly or move about the space, between the beds and walkways.
Findlay’s attempt to make a play for a sleeping audience is somewhat of an experiment. “I’m interested in what can happen when we get free from the idea that art is dependent on the transaction of the audience ‘paying’ attention,” says the director, co-writer, and co-designer. “What if you don’t pay? What if I don’t ask? How little can we both do and still have something worthwhile happen?”
Not quite. Findlay’s question, and the program itself, suggest paying attention is optional. But Dream of the Red Chamber is best enjoyed, and makes the most sense, when one is straddling the line between sleep and consciousness – actively not paying attention, but nonetheless making oneself involuntarily susceptible to the performance. At those moments, the sounds and lights interact with your own half-conscious streams, seeping into your dreams, the production infusing into your sleeping mind.
While the lights mostly stay dim throughout, a light will shine directly on an audience member in some segments and not others, depending on the position of their beds. The repetitiveness of each segments’ melody contrasts with the somewhat jarring quality of each scene change. The effect is to pull its audience out of sleep, briefly, before allowing them to settle back in, ready to fall into another dream. It’s not so much a matter of the audience members doing as little as possible, but simply putting themselves in a state more appropriate for this particular show.
Awake, the performance takes on a wholly different aspect, one that lends itself to being dispassionately viewed, but only for a few minutes – as one would a work of art in a museum. After that, the mind wanders. This sounds more like the uninvolved audience Findlay imagines, and doubtless that will be enough for some. But aside from the chance for a few minutes for self-reflection, this production offers more to those who embrace sleep.
While some of the beds are more exposed, in the crossfire of lights, others are tucked away in darker, quieter corners, placing the performance more in the background. This also makes the production extremely versatile. Since each spot provides a different vantage point, different stimuli, the act of simply moving from bed to bed provides you with a different experience. And the use of the cards ensures that each night will invariably involve different scenes from the novel, adding another layer of randomness to the experience.
It’s rare for an audience to come away with such drastically different experiences from one another, even while sharing the same space at the same time. Even more rare is having one’s own experience left largely to chance, your dreams taking on a life of their own.
Weeknights, Dream of the Red Chamber runs from 5 p.m. to midnight. Saturday, however, it runs through the night until 6 a.m., allowing a much more immersive experience.