The overpriced, decadent glitz of the Brookfield Place mall feels particularly offensive across the street from the 9-11 Memorial. But this strange cavern with its sweeping architecture and culturally grotesque commercial contents presently hosts the city’s most original and fascinating installation of site-specific theater-as-art (or art-as-theater), A Dozen Dreams.
En Garde Arts asked 12 playwrights (all women) to create brief works of recorded theater based on their own dreams. Each scene has its own set, all designed by one of the show’s creators, the visionary Irina Kruzhilina, and theatergoers visit them in sequence. Timed entry means each visitor (or “pod” of up to two people) experiences each piece alone.
That’s the infrastructure: interesting and apropos for our times, of course, but not unique. It’s the marvelous content that turns a visit to a gaudy temple of Mammon into a session with an oracle of the present and future of artistic excellence.
The first dream, by Ellen McLaughlin, unfolds in a temporary structure in the mall’s central plaza. Fittingly – and, considering what follows, a bit ironically – the piece ushers us into an actor’s backstage dream: first a theatrical dressing room complete with sink and makeup counter, then a tiny model of a movie theater. The poetic narrative touches on an unsurprising version of the universal nightmare of unpreparedness. But its real focus is the urgent importance of art itself – the actor-dreamer aware of herself as “that needed thing,” and of her place in the tradition of the “shadowy elders of the depression dark.” The dream conflates screen legends of Hollywood’s first golden era with black-and-white photos of ancestors projected on the miniature theater’s screen.
Most of the rest of the vignettes, though, take place not amid a public space but in the mall’s own “backstage.” In a part of the building visitors don’t normally see, Kruzhilina has transformed a warren of bare spaces into a dungeon of expressive dreamscapes. A few are outfitted like homes, dressed with timeworn furniture, books, ephemera. Others hold phantasmagorical versions of remembered places and events. The piece by Mona Mansour features its items of interest squirreled behind distorting lenses. Rehana Mirza’s dream is of packing to move, with items of everyday life encased in museum-like display cases set into the walls.
The most haunting is Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok’s series of jumbled nightmares described with panicky speed in a gauzy multi-room maze featuring a monstrously tall wedding dress and a room with an ancient jukebox and walls full of clocks.
Other pieces are starker, like the intense, seemingly free-associative piece by Ren Dara Santiago, and Liza Jessie Peterson’s pointed attack on white supremacy funneled into a dream of finally being able to (metaphorically) breathe free. More abstractedly intriguing is the icy space illustrating Caridad Svich’s prose poem set in a “sublunary realm” (shades of John Donne?), dramatized with evocative lighting (by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) and sound (by Rena Anakwe).
A few pieces address the pandemic, notably Lucy Thurber’s dream of safety enacted in a sunrise-lit room where a voice thinks of ways the plague has changed us that might be worth holding onto afterwards. I know I for one would like a lot less Zoom, but I also know I’d welcome more site-specific theater, which is a specialty of co-creator and artistic director Anne Hamburger.
A Dozen Dreams runs through May 30 at the Winter Garden plaza inside Brookfield Place. Timed tickets are free and available online. It’s by far the best thing you can do for free in this mall for the one percent – and one of the best indoor arts experiences of any kind in New York City right now. Don’t miss it!