Philip Kan Gotanda Makes His Dream Ours
by Dan Kennard
When a friend emphatically says, “I had the craziest dream last night,” we listen with polite disinterest, nodding in a trance, as this friend babbles on about god knows what because no one cares. Finally, this friend breaks the spell–“Pretty crazy huh?” It’s hard to make dreams interesting.
Playwright and director Philip Kan Gotanda had a dream, and thankfully for us, he turned it into a play, “The Dream of Kitamura,” now at U.C. Berkeley Zellerbach Playhouse, until Sunday, April 29.
Dreams and the telling of dreams involve more than simply relating events. Every moment is potentially pregnant with meaning, every gesture a seed. At one point Lady Zuma (Eleanor O’Malley), with precise and ceremonious movements, begins pouring red tea from a kettle. Then, she pours it back into the kettle. She becomes stuck in a loop, while a second iteration, a shadow of herself, mimics her movements.
But her second self has no tea in her kettle. A third iteration appears and without tea or kettle, mimes the same movements–though now with glitches.
The result is a mesmerizing spectacle of synchronization, and then horror, as the movements become more sporadic, like a file that is continually compressed until it begins to deteriorate, leaving inhuman artifacts behind. Description alone does not do this scene justice, perhaps not even cinema can capture it accurately. Scenes like these are made for the theater.
“The Dream of Kitamura” blends a potpourri of styles and genres, from Butoh to Noir, that mash into an idiosyncratic, novel form. The set is alive and haunting, with a single red gothic throne elevated in the center. The surrounding walls look like they were designed by surreal cartoonist Jean Giraud. The set design feels alive, alien, and in a state of decay.
The surreal set gives us a sense that we inhabit a space beyond normal rules of logic. We are in the dream.
Are we peering into a mind? Are these walls the decaying interior of a brain, a broken mind? If so, whose mind? This is the sort dream analysis and detective work playwright and director Gotanda is inviting us to participate in, and don’t forget, it is a murder mystery after all!
But I forget, until the booming voice of Sam (Ivan Oyarzabal) pierces me with lucidity: “Attention! Attention! You gotta pay attention!”
Oh yes! This is a murder mystery, there are clues to be uncovered, meaning to eek out. Why is the tea red? What’s about that finger to forehead business? But there is a fine line between detecting and experiencing. Looking for meaning in everything can be distracting and Gotanda’s “Dream of Kitamura” straddles the line between muddling and puzzling.
“Kitamura,” like a Rorschach test, offers us multiple interpretations and entry points. No matter our approach, Gotanda keeps us on our toes, complete with misdirection and red herrings, a whodunit that pays off in the end.
“The Dream of Kitamura” leaves us with a rich and layered experience, sometimes horrifying, other times sublime. Gotanda’s dream is now our dream–just don’t try to explain it afterwards.
“The Dream of Kitamura” written by Philip Kan Gotanda, directed by Gotanda and Katie Faulkner, and choreographed by Faulkner, at University of California, Berkeley, in Zellerbach Playhouse, through Sunday, April 29, 2018. Info: tdps.berkeley.edu
Cast: Melissa Chapman, Erica Chung, Katia Coate, Amainary Contreras, Hope Fellows, John Hildenbrand, Eleanor O’Malley, Ivan Oyarzabal, Paris Shockley, and Drew Woodson.