Bad Dreams: Too much abstraction mars Dream Theatre’s double feature

(courtesy of dream theater)

To describe Dream Theatre Company’s theatrical double-feature “Aelita” and “Shiny Boxes” as two plays is perhaps slightly inaccurate. The two shows, which opened February 4 at Pilsen’s Dream Theatre Company, desperately seek a postmodern audience as they align more with stage dramatizations of abstract, disturbing poetry.

Judging from the small audience’s polite round of clapping at the end, it was difficult to know if Dream Theater found their desired patrons.

To Dream Theater’s credit, the two shows are meant to confront their audience. The first, Chicago-based playwright Bil Gaines’s “Aelita,” is a snapshot-quick story of a woman who kills for reasons that are explicitly explored, but nonetheless convoluted. In the first few minutes of the play, Aelita lays waste to a domestic scene. The rest of the narrative centers around Aelita’s interactions with her dead victims. Her motivation for murder is explored and eventually resolved when the victims finally leave Aelita in peace.

Aelita, played by Meredith Rae Lyons, is livid one moment and serene the next, forcing the other characters to react to her mood swings. The domestic scene is made up of a quintessentially bored American husband-and-wife pair, Marvin and Fenchurch (Chad Sheveland and Anna Weiler). Though the wife is immediately killed, she continues to converse with her husband, and their dialogue occasionally dips into absurd hilarity.

The second half of the story unfolds as an elaborate metaphor. The characters themselves begin to speak in metaphor, adding an element of strangeness that heightens the sense of abstraction. While this makes for interesting post-dénouement evaluation of the murder, which retains an air of unresolved mystery, it doesn’t necessarily make for good theater. My companion and I left unmoved, emerging from what felt like a strange, dull, daydream.
Mishelle Renee Apalategui’s “Shiny Boxes” is equally violent, featuring another manic protagonist. Quartus (Zach Livingston) spells out for his well-meaning girlfriend Cannon (Judith Lesser) the story of a truly unpleasant childhood birthday. As he alternates between the present time and flashbacks, Quartus’ mental state grows increasingly disjointed, until the two realities conflate, and he snaps.

“Shiny Boxes” would be easier to enjoy if it was not so difficult to sympathize with Quartus. While his bad day is bad, it is not tragic, and his obnoxious parents, the overbearing Magda (Alicia Reese) and the absent Philo (Sean Murphy), are not unfamiliar characters. The best moments in the play were those between Quartus and Cannon, who Livingston and Lesser infuse with a glowing chemistry.

Like “Aelita,” “Shiny Boxes” was also layered with dense metaphor. The effect of this often fell flat, as each was at once obvious but ungraspable, and intimate without being stirring. The plays were similar enough that their back-to-back presentation seems intuitive, and neither outshines nor embarrasses its partner. While both may have an inclination toward unsatisfying, self-indulgent phrases at ill-advised times, the two plays are otherwise well-written.
The problem–or perhaps the strength, depending on one’s taste–of “Aelita” and “Shiny Boxes” is that both deconstruct themselves as they play out, instead of letting the audience do so. Too many metaphors, dressed up in shiny boxes, risk spoiling the play.

Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th St. February 4-21. Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday 7pm. $15-18.