Dream of the Red Chamber, a performance for a sleeping audience

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Dream of the Red Chamber. Brill Building (see Off-Off Broadway). Conceived and written by Jim Findlay and Jeff Jackson. Directed by Findlay. With ensemble cast. Running time: Length varies. Audiences come and go as they please.

Dream of the Red Chamber: In brief

If you've ever nodded off at the theater, this may be just the show for you: Jim Findlay and Jeff Jackson's piece invites audiences to zone in and out of dreamland during an immersive performance inspired by Cao Xueqin's 18th-century Chinese novel about the love between a stone and a flower. (The Saturday-night performances last through 6am the next morning.)

Dream of the Red Chamber: Review by Helen Shaw

Three (faint) cheers for truth in advertising! Director-designer Jim Findlay's long-form, site-specific installation Dream of the Red Chamber is subtitled “a performance for a sleeping audience,” and Findlay has indeed deliberately made a work to snooze through. To be sure, I am firmly in the pro-napping camp (so good for your heart health!), but is it worth going to Times Square and lying on a public cot to get that extra sleep? The answer is yes, but only if you are capable of drifting off while also being gently annoyed about the performance art on display, or if disorientation qua disorientation is your artistic bag.

Fair's fair: In a cavernous, unfinished, white-painted basement under Broadway and 49th Street, Findlay has created a magical environment for something to happen. Low, red beds sit inside a giant maze structure made of white, translucent veils, which also conceal tiny stages tucked into the corners of the huge room. Some beds are completely hemmed in; others allow a view down the central aisle. In the center of the room stands a table with an occasionally spinning light fixture, and above the strangely misty atmosphere looms a tech platform, which sends constant live-feed video to the many televisions and projectors strewn about. It's trippy and sweet, an opium den made by Ikea.

The trouble is the “happening” part. Into this atmosphere Findlay sends actors (mostly women) through a series of repetitive, mysterious actions. Dream can go on for 11 hours during the overnight shows; the director handles marathon-viewing fatigue by allowing audience members to wander in and out as they please. In the section I saw, Liz Sargent combed a blond wig while looking menacingly into a camera. Keneza Schaal and Rebecca Warner also gazed, doe-eyed, into a camera. Someone built a house of cards over and over. There was some glacial, wiggly-armed choreography. Despite the fact that there are copies lying about of the source material, Cao Xueqin's 18th-century epic (also known as The Story of the Stone), the only obvious engagement with it is the strong whiff of orientalism.

The thing I found particularly troubling in my time in Dream was the way serious thought—if it was present—was well and truly hidden. At some point in the process, long-duration close-ups of beautiful women must have seemed like the best way to engage with a four-volume Chinese epic that tangled with feudal politics and pushed vernacular forms. Cao Xueqin thought of his masterpiece as a testimonial to the women of his youth. So…I want to believe. But after all that process actually turned into a show in a room, the slice I witnessed was: Hot People Wear Chineezy Clothes and Move Slow.

Findlay has a tricky brain, which I value and admire. As a designer, he boasts an extraordinary level of control and three-dimensional thinking; the perspective from each cot offers a different series of layered images, some glimmering gently through veils, others standing disorientingly close. He has talked about the way the novel constructs our worldly life as a dream, an incarnation of something far stranger and more truthful. Having his audience drifting in and out of consciousness does create some interesting time dilation; you may not be exactly sure how long you were in his Magic Basement. What doesn't work is the content itself—the choreography, the human behavior, the events.

I admit to growing impatient, even angry with it, even as I admired Dream's ambition. It's free; go make up your own mind. But if I didn't tell you I thought the thing was goofy, I'd be falling asleep on the job.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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