The Dreamer Examines his Pillow – Unpathed Theatre Company and Vashti Pontaks take us on a journey within. (Theatre Review)

It’s a brave director that takes on John Patrick Shanley, but to perform possibly his most complex internally referenced work brought to the surface of all things as a first time director is the kind of challenge that must have left director Vashti Pontaks so transformed she can’t recognise herself in the mirror. Pontaks is co-founder of the relatively new Unpathed Theatre Company, with the bold ambitions to “expose the truth of the human condition”, so The Dreamer examines his Pillow is the perfect place for her to start, even if it must have felt a little like deep end survival at several points during production.

Image of Ainslie Clouston and Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

Image of Ainslie Clouston and Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is a comic twisted tale of the wrenched inner agonies of three people teetering on the brink of alchemic change, but who yank themselves away from the heat at the crucial moment each time. They exist in a Beckett-like stymie built around a Freudian inspired navel gazing, as the title suggests, but we meet them when the stasis is starting to tilt in favour of the ugly darkness each character fears inside themselves. For Donna (Ainslie Clouston), the fear is of her genes, convinced certain actions will see her play out a trans-generational passion for the wrong man exhibited by her dead mother, embodied in the bitter residue of a father she feels emotionally distant from. For her would-be-currently-ex-lover Tommy (Scott Lee), the fear is of a will to self destruct, the Freudian death-drive that prevents his action and produces the most stark example of a human rotting from self loathing.  Tommy is reduced to his  ugly apartment, a world he makes constantly smaller by filling it with the refuse of living, and reserving his truths for his intimacies with his beer filled refrigerator. He’s just slept with Donna’s underage sister in an attempt to draw Donna back into his world, and force the war that should crush his longings for her completely. Oppressed by her lack of movement, and appalled by her attraction to the man whose love sits so close to hate, Donna flees to her father’s room to seek answers to questions she finally knows how to express, only to be confronted with the same refusal to act. Dad (Peter McAllum) is loquacious in his perverse earnest instruction, his maturity translating into regret and confusion at what drove his response to love. He lives in his own small world drinking himself out of regretting behaviours he knows could never have played out any other way. Eventually the three will meet and make a yawp of a cry for the act, no matter how flawed, no matter how fearful, no matter how prone to error.  Just act.

Image of Ainslie Clouston and Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

Image of Ainslie Clouston and Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

John Patrick Shanley packets all this incredible monologuing into a rich Bronx-flavoured poetry that the three actors have to convert to gripping prose, and convert they do. Clouston’s Donna in a slim, red-lipsticked school-of-hard-knocks taught intelligent woman, dressed like a domino seeking its first move, constantly let down by her high expectations of the morality of others. With a nasally, needle-like thin voice she prys holes in the weak links of the arguments of her male counterparts, her impeccable Bronx accent carrying the irritation and location necessary for this complex female character. Despite all the brought-to-the-surface depth in Donna, Clouston manages to find the subterranean impulses that drive her, giving us a woman who presents as vulnerable even as she articulates what she sees with declaritive power. Lee’s Tommy is a slow smoulder of a character, unassuming at first, building to the mighty climax at the end of the first scene when he makes his declarations into the gaping, cold mouth of his refrigerator. Lee sneaks up on us, seeming to give the magnetism of Clouston precedence over his sweet-faced, wayward character until he  embodies the man adrift in a slimy ocean of his own making, with the cry of a trapped animal. Lee carries many of the darkly comic lines, and has put a lot of work into his back and forth with Clouston, bringing the clever dialogue to vibrant life.

Image of Ainslie Clouston and Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

Image of Ainslie Clouston and Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

The two young actors wrestle for stage presence against the enigmatic Peter Mc Allum as Dad, and they have their work cut out for them.  McAllum’s experience shines through as he relishes the long, complicated monologues of his character.  His opening lines about the misery of parenthood are searing and reach directly at the perpetual torment laced with love that parenting involves. His dysfunctional father is lovable and loathable together, and McAllum’s connection with the audience unnerving, as we get way too close to his frightening mind. Pontaks moves all three characters around the stage like carefully arranged museum pieces, so the audience feel intimately connected and distanced at the same time, constantly hovering between the moment of self recognition and the intellectual observation. This gives the words a different layer of potency and allows the viewer to enjoy them and be moved.

Image of Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

Image of Scott Lee by Tom Bannerman.

Tom Bannerman’s set is a minimal affair, almost moving out the way of the dialogue, but for the emotional impact of colour. The bare walls of Tommy’s apartment in the advanced stages of great decay are grey looming arms that get replaced by a vibrant red-curtained womb-like backdrop when Donna seeks out the assistance of her father. Jed Silver’s sound slithers around creating great gushing gusts of noise that rise up under the dialogue but never overtakes it. Together with Joshua Vozzo’s subtle lighting and Pontaks’ focus on dialogue, Unpathed have produced a clever, competent and deeply engaging interpretation of The Dreamer Examines his Pillow.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is now showing at the Tap Gallery theatre space, from 13 December to 21 December. You can grab your tickets here.

All Images used in this post by Tom Bannerman.  Dreamer banner from Unpathed website.

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