A strange little show, The Dream of the Rood is more a staged reading of the medieval poem by that name than a real theater piece. “The Dream of the Rood” is an eighth-century (or conceivably even earlier) Christian poem, six pages or so in length. Western Europe’s earliest known dream-vision poem, it’s a classic of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) literature, probably considerably older than Beowulf.
One thing it is decidedly not is a stage play. In theory, though, this production from the American Theatre of Actors and Collectio Musicorum combines three great interests of mine: theater, poetry, and early music. It turns out to be an odd bird all around.
Theatrically, it’s unpolished, staged as if without much consideration for pacing. The music consists almost entirely of plainchant (Gregorian chant) sung sometimes with apparently pious strength, other times with grievous intonation problems. Poetically, director Jeff S. Dailey’s new translation is delivered with somewhat inconsistent modalities by the cast of seven.
On the other hand, it isn’t trying to be a traditional play. The production envisions a group of monks reciting and symbolically acting out the poet’s vision of a visitation from the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The cross (the rood) describes to the poet the crucifixion and resurrection from its perspective, and its own transformation from nail-pierced gallows pole to beacon of redemption decked in gold and silver. A unique take on Christianity’s foundational story, it’s a dream vision of dramatic events, but not in itself a drama.
Dailey has smoothly translated the original Anglo-Saxon into clear, almost colloquial modern English, while retaining something of the original’s stony piety. I’m always interested in new translations of these ancient texts, as my days of studying Old English are long in the past. And we do get a feel here for the poem’s power. As for the music, how can we know how good the ancient monks were at singing in unison? They weren’t performing for an audience, after all. They were praying.
Indeed the whole production feels like something rather more private than truly theatrical – as, I think, is Dailey’s intention. A tiny fire and the sound of howling wind set the somber scene. After that, it’s all hooded red robes, voices trading lines, solo and in unison, with stylized movement. In addition to playing the monks, cast members represent Jesus, angels, and vicious demons. All are icons more than characters; the only real character in the poem – and in the production – is the rood itself.
Whether you’re familiar with this ancient woody dream or not, this is probably the liveliest way you’ll ever have the opportunity to experience it. The Dream of the Rood is at the American Theatre of Actors through April 1. Tickets are available online via TDF or by calling 212-581-3044.