The gleaming luxury mall at Brookfield Place belies the hardscrabble piece of art installation-meets-theatre sprawling in its back rooms. En Garde Arts commissioned twelve playwrights to write short pieces based on their pandemic dreams. From there, they fashioned a visual and aural odyssey through twelve fully designed, immersive rooms that plunge the audience into the playwrights’ semi-waking thoughtscape. Guided by the writers’ own voices via sanitized headphones and impeccable sound design by Rena Anakwe, the pairing of these whispered fantasies with the detailed environments provides an intimate experience welcome after the past fourteen months.
The visual and environment design by Irina Kruzhilina carves out pathways between the dreams separated by a curtain that is pulled aside. It’s passing through a physical veil from one dream to the next, a slate wiped clean. It’s a simple visual metaphor, but represents the thoughtful minutiae that is characteristic of Kruzhilina’s design. Along with the work of lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, each of the twelve rooms feels distinctive. They have their own identity, in keeping with the dozen different voices of the playwrights. Each segment is less than five minutes long and there is so much to take in that it feels like you could spend twice as long in some of the spaces. If the scope occasionally feels out of balance in other rooms, it’s easily forgivable.
The “tell us about a dream” prompt is open enough that the playwrights respond in many different ways. Some recount a specific dream, some talk about a dream as a wish for the future. Martyna Majok’s dream unfurls in a volley of words, a succession of visions snapping from one to the other, compressing time, reversing and rejiggering events. Majok captures the unstable freneticism of a stress dream. Kruzhilina physicalizes this feeling with a design that is part abandoned house, part dusty bar, complete with a headless woman in a rocking chair keeping guard. It is in this room that the project’s potential comes to full fruition and all the elements are synthesized.
Immediately after Majok’s dream is a piece by Liza Jessie Peterson set against tilted pillars in a room cracked by an earthquake. Peterson flickers into sight in a video design by Brittany Bland and recounts a “dream of being able to breathe deep without the constant assault of white supremacy all up in my world invading my peace, threatening my health, snatching my oxygen like a goddamn virus…of white supremacy crumbling to smithereens, in a pile of rubble.” The environment here is more literal than in some of the other rooms, but its explicitness lends it power. We are standing in the rubble Peterson mentions, a manifestation of the destruction of racial inequality. These two dreams represent the highlights of strong work across the board.
The final dream takes place in an airy blue sculpture in the middle of the mall. Emily Mann’s dream is simple on the surface: reconnecting with an old friend, the actress and singer Kecia Lewis. Lewis brings joy and light to Mann, something she has longed for in the hard isolation of the pandemic. The sculpture is translucent and the sun poured in over the Hudson as Lewis began to sing. I stood there taking it all in, happy to be out, happy to be vaccinated, happy to be surrounded by art. You could say it was a dream come true.