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Review: John Patrick Shanley's THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW Delivers a Captivating Blow of Reality at Tampa Rep

Like capturing lightning in a bottle, this is as intense and cathartic as it gets... and this cast delivers tenfold.

Review: John Patrick Shanley's THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW Delivers a Captivating Blow of Reality at Tampa Rep

"One eye sees too much, and one can't get big enough to see my way out of how I feel...

Everything is you."

"There is no justice inna relationship."

"A rough dirty whitewashed concrete basement room. Only the rear wall is visible. On the wall is a door. On the wall, fixed with four big hurtful nails, is a crude, violent drawing of a man's face. The face has one big eye and one small eye, it's painted with black strokes, and has a drop of red and a faint smudge of green. There are long cracks in the wall, emanating from the nails. At rise, Tommy is sitting in his busted recliner looking at his dirty refrigerator. He's unshaven. He's drinking a can of beer. He's in dirty white garb." From the opening stage directions of Shanley's script.

John Patrick Shanley's The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, is a complex and intricate story that dives not only into the depths of our subconscious but boldly sits on the surface level of our emotions as well. Allowing us as the audience to not only deep dive within the minds of these characters, but into our own past or current circumstances. Shanley's piece while complex is told within the length of 3 scenes ultimately ending with the audience making up their own conclusion to not only the events of the story but our own lives as we've grown so accustomed. John Patrick Shanley achieves masterful work here even with this being an earlier part of his repertoire. Shanley, most famously known as the Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award-winning playwright for Doubt, and the Oscar-winning Moonstruck has written 23 plays most of which he has gone on to direct, and is a Screenwriter on 9 Feature Films. Out of his 23 plays few have been performed in the Tampa Bay area, so it's a much-needed breath of fresh air that TampaRep has decided to produce one of his earlier works, and still find relevance in the piece today. Director Chris Marshall, who has wanted to direct a Shanley play for some time says it best in his Director's Notes,

"...Our process has been about using the power of language to connect, though to do so is terrifying. It's been equally about fierce listening and seeking to be affected as a listener, something we do less and less of these days. In these spaces (the theatre as theatre and as the room to hold scenic representations), we have finite opportunity, space, and time to connect, to learn, to discover. What a gift."

Diving into the plot is a complex one and for this show, there is a lot to have to unpack. In the essence of being brief, yet still explaining the inner workings, and yet not giving away the plot Shanley's piece is a mammoth to tackle. As a producing company, you have to have the right cast to tackle such work, and the right director to steer a clear path from start to finish. It's an easy thing to take a story such as this and get bogged down by all the complexities, not in design per-se but in the characters. Some directors will take it upon themselves to dictate every moment to moment, not allowing the performer to explore, and find the depths of how far they are willing to go. With a piece like Dreamer, this style is damn near impossible. Now don't get me wrong, not in any way am I saying a director who chose to tackle this piece should be completely hands-off. On the contrary, the Director should find the lengths the performers are willing to go, push them to the brink of that, and then harness the true human nature found within the depths of these characters. These characters should not be caricatures, but real people. As an audience member, one should be able to sit and find a little of themselves in one or more performers on stage. Shanley's script is so grounded in moments of reality that it acts as an introspective reflection of moments in our own lives. I can say that as sure as I'm writing this, Director Chris Marshall and the company of TampaRep have done just that.

Scene one opens with Tommy in the middle of the space adorned with a battered recliner and an even more battered-looking refrigerator. As Tommy stares at the refrigerator seemingly trying to explain to himself why he is in this position, Donna (Tommy's ex-lover) burst through the door. Donna wants to know that after Tommy broke her heart, why did he think it was ok to start sleeping with her younger sister. The back and forth between the two leads to moments of unbridled electricity that can only be harnessed in the effect Tommy has over Donna, that is sheer ecstasy from even a simple touch. Donna decides to leave, and visit her father so she can speak to him about Tommy. Once Donna leaves, Tommy is left alone and once again stares at the refrigerator. Suddenly an out-of-body experience takes hold of Tommy, only to find him not more confused but more enlightened than before.

Scene two finds Donna visiting her Dad in what was once their family home. Her father(known only as Dad), is a down-and-out has-been painter who gave it all up following the death of his beloved wife. Turning to drink to kill the pain, Dad lives alone in a ramshackle dwelling (much like that of the one Tommy resides). After a back and forth of father/daughter banter, Donna has 3 questions for her father. Dad reveals a dream he had reminiscing about his wife's imprint (dent) she leaves on her pillow while sleeping. Imparting some parental wisdom, Donna learns more about her father than she originally knew, asks him to speak with Tommy, and for a moment finds comfort in his embrace.

Scene three finds Tommy back in his concrete purgatory when Donna's Dad visits him. Through a vast wealth of knowledge much beyond his years, Tommy learns that Donna's Dad may very much be like him and vice-versa. In the end, Shanley reveals that the ending should be left to our own interpretation, and as we leave the space ask ourselves, (How do we communicate when it seems to be too hard to do such a simple task?)

From top to bottom this cast should revel in their accomplishment. They and the fine folks at TampaRep have seemingly captured lightning in a bottle. There is so much energy bursting off the front that it is like someone unscrewed the lid and let forth all to be told.

"There's lightning screwed in a jar here..." -Tommy on his relationship with Donna

As Tommy Ar'Darius Stewart is so magnetic. He takes hold of the material he's been given and with every line breathes new life into his character's arc. Dressed in white, you wonder if he's a memory or a real person. The borderline gray area in which this performer travels is magnificent to watch. Much like Mahershala Ali in Moonlight, and even more so in Greenbook there is something enigmatic about his portrayal here. You feel his pain, his struggle, and his portrayal allows you to look deep inside yourself. There is a moment when in the first scene Donna leaves and he is left center stage bathed in light, delivering an emotional plea to the universe and it is truly captivating to watch. He is so tethered to the arc of the story and the line in which his character tries to travel, that it makes for a very relevant and grounded performance. Anyone who has had their heart broken will feel the power in his portrayal.

Donna played by Anna Roman is a no-holds-barred firecracker waiting to explode. You can feel the electricity between her and Tommy. At the same time, you feel the wounded heart she wears on her sleeve. Her performance is a strong portrayal and is often reminiscent of Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine. She brings you along on this emotionally driven ride that is as tragic as it is beautiful, and can only be doomed in the end. This was never meant to be a happy story, but a raw emotional one and Anna's performance captures that raw quality. I will say, however, that albeit this was a "Preview" performance at times it was almost impossible to hear her lines. Couple that with the thick accent and the audience could find it hard to understand some of the things she was saying. In a small intimate venue such as the one in which the show is staged, even a back turned to the audience can mean an entire loss of plot or story. If she projected even on some of the more intimate moments like at the end of scene 2, then we might as an audience be able to fully understand her more. This should in no way take away from the power of her performance, for much like Ar'Darius as Tommy, Anna's portrayal of Donna is a powerful one, and she should be proud of the work she achieved.

Jim Sorensen as Dad is the perfect lost soul. Down on his luck with nowhere to turn, only to realize he brought it all on himself, this is a powerful turn for this performer. Even from the beginning when he is drunk and hating life, to the limping walk about the space Jim captures every moment to moment with pure finesse. The moments with Donna in scene two reflect the father/daughter dichotomy they have captured through the years, and you sense the real power in their connection. In his hardest of hearts, you understand that Dad wants the best for his daughter, and wants her to yield her own path no matter the consequences. Jim is exceptional here and as an audience, we should all bear witness to his power on stage.

Technically strong The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, is yet another reason why I keep coming back to shows at TampaRep. A simple set design by Jim Sorensen and Lisa Lippincott conveys the story in every gritty detail. Much like the raw depths of shows like Tracy Lett's Killer Joe, and Bug, there is a sort of filth about this world in which the characters reside. It's that gritty, raw texture that makes this world ever so uneasy. It's the seediness, that allows the story's dialogue and moment-to-moment to be harnessed and pushed to the front of the stage without all the spectacle. Personally, that is what I find the most compelling. Couple that with the lighting design by Jayce Bertucelli and as an audience member you are completely enveloped in the world in which these characters reside. The lighting and the set complement one another so well that it is all-encompassing. Sound Design by Georgia Mallory Guy adds an additional layer to the story that works well without being a distraction. In that sense, there is something about silence that is so damn gripping in this show, even the cracking open of a beer can is captivating, and every detail in this production was thought out and executed to its fullest potential. Macy Smith's costume design worked well to tell us as the audience who these characters are in relation to their world.

Director Chris Marshall executed a finite moment in time, in which we are all connected. He took a story complex in its wording and centered on communication, or terrifying lack thereof, and made us feel every moment. Not a moment misplaced, not an arc lost, everything works here. Marshall having wanted to produce a Shanley piece for some time, has met this with the finest of hands. A show like this would not work without an Intimacy Director and Producing Artistic Director Emilia Sargent shows masterful work here. Hand in hand her work with Marshall on this extraordinary compelling piece is a work of Masterclass. Stage Managed by Harrison Baxley and expertly paced, this 1 hour and 45-minute emotional ride, is one I will remember for some time.

In times like these when the cost of living is so high, and rising gas prices plague our existence, sometimes a welcomed escape from reality is all we need, even for a brief moment in time. A ticket to The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, will allow for just that. Although sometimes, even in silence, even in a space where for a brief moment we can all be connected by the same wavelength, we find that our escape will teach us the most valuable of lessons, and one that we may have never noticed was right in front of our eyes all along, and together we simply breathe, and "Begin."

Tickets for John Patrick Shanley's The Dreamer Examines His Pillow can be purchased by visiting and clicking on the ticket link. Shanley's masterful work can be seen on stage through June 19th, at the USF School of Theatre and Dance, 3837 USF Holly Drive, TAR 230, Tampa, FL 33620.


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