Theater of Dreams: A new play draws inspiration from silent movies and burlesque shows

(Courtesy of Dream Theatre)

(Courtesy of Dream Theatre)

Jeremy Menekseoglu and Anna Weiler are interested in the philosophical dimensions of melodrama and horror. As ringmasters of Dream Theatre Company in Pilsen, they’ve spent the past few years exploring the relationship between what is physically and psychologically repelling and what is ridiculous. Their working style is steadfast, but also insistently experimental. Embracing both the absurd and the visceral, Dream Theatre Company’s original ensemble productions have been modeled after Greek tragedies and B-list horror films, incorporating elements of 1940s crime dramas and burlesque shows.

On their website, the company describes their core missions: “produce all original work” and “shatter the barrier between actors and audience.” Since relocating to Chicago in 2003, Dream Theatre Company has been continually picking up momentum. It has been a long journey for the company–one that began in Moscow in the late ’90s. After leaving Russia, they spent time in New York, Orlando, and California. In many ways, Menekseoglu explains, Chicago was the right place for their project. “It has the right economy and the right spirit. In Chicago there is enough space.” Last year alone, Menekseoglu directed four plays, all of which he’d written or co-written, and two of which he also acted in. He and Weiler often write and direct together, though Weiler frequently oversees set design and costumes. Although the company has expanded over the last few years, the ensemble seems to have maintained a strong ethos of working toward common objectives. For “The Black Duckling,” which opens Thursday, composer Trevor Watkin has written an original score–some of which he will play live during the performance.

In the spirit of adapting new subgenres, “The Black Duckling” was envisioned, as Menekseoglu explains, as “an homage to the silent movie.” For example, rather than recite lines, actors move silently beneath their lines, which are projected onto a screen, with only Watkin’s score filling the theater. Set in Holocaust-era Europe, the play’s main character is a young girl, Smee, who works in a burlesque club sweeping floors. The play gets its title from an allegory relayed in one scene. A man burdened by various societal pressures comes across a duck in the gutter. He thinks he ought to crush it in order to take it out of its misery. Just before he steps on the duck, however, it flies away: a convenient symbol for Smee’s character.

Menekseoglu makes a compelling case for the silent movie effect. He speaks excitedly about how he sees the motif playing out. When the play opens, the lobby will recall an old movie theater with popcorn stands and 1930s photographs of partially undressed dancers. There is no elevated stage and the actors will come into the seats, which themselves seem to transition smoothly into the set.

Beginning October 19, “The Black Duckling” will run back-to-back with a second Dream Theatre Company production, “Anna in the Darkness,” which will take place in the basement theater of the same building. In effect, it becomes a double feature. The basement, littered with old dolls, bricks, hardware, picture frames, and dust, is halfway between boiler room and haunted house. It’s a scary place and Menekseoglu loves it.
Dream Theatre Company, 556 W. 18th St. October 15—November 15, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 7pm. Reservations by phone. $20. (773)552-8616.

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