Cherwell

The Actor’s Nightmare Review – “a high octane sprint through an abominable nocturnal dystopia”

Credit: Mercury Theatre Productions

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ intones over the softly lit Burton Taylor Studio as audience members drip in to fill the proscenium seats. The stage before us is sparsely decorated; an ominously bloody chopping block sits centre stage, accompanied by a rack of dresses and a white sheet draped over an ornate screen.

Louis and Ella fade out and ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’ by Crowded House comes on, creating the desired atmosphere of dreamy nostalgia. The lights drop and George (Ryan Bernsten) wanders out onto the bare stage. We are located in his subconscious, experiencing the descent into theatrical hell all thespians fear, where George is trapped in a spinning set of plays for which he knows neither the plots nor the lines.

Christopher Durang’s one act satire, The Actor’s Nightmare, is absurd and exaggerated in equal measure. The play, directed by Alex Blanc from Mercury Theatre Productions, runs to half an hour; the pace a high octane sprint through an abominable nocturnal dystopia.

The opening scene is backstage, moments before the curtain goes up, during which the supporting cast cut diagonally across the stage, carving a thoroughfare that approaches and passes George, while exchanging snippets of exposition with him.

Bernsten emulates nervous terror that occasionally edges on hysteria and, while the jokes don’t always land, the anticipation is being built towards the humiliation to come. The absurd nature of the premise is tempered with the blunt panic of the moment, and this is only worsened as the stage is bathed in a crimson glow and a voiceover announces the beginning of the play.

Bernsten is now dressed as Hamlet, but stuck in a performance of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. He begins to settle into the role and his interactions with Sarah Siddons (Chantal Marauta) shimmer. Her expressive face grows increasingly distressed as she repeats cues again and again, while maintaining the inflated body language of Coward’s theatrics, for which George has no response.

Both Sarah and Dame Ellen Terry (Emilka Cieslak) sparkle in their dresses, typical of the Roaring Twenties, and contrast with the bumbling of George. The role of stage manager Meg is gender flipped, played by Robin Ferguson, creating comic moments as (s)he darts in and out as the buxom maid.

We are manoeuvred to Denmark, and although George is unsure of his location, he assumes the role of Prince Hamlet. The dashing Horatio is played by Stevie Polywnka, who leaves the characteristic smarmy sincerity in favour of a quietly humorous demeanour, using minute gestures that complement the slaphappy scene beforehand.

Bernsten truly comes into his own during his unwanted Shakespearean soliloquy, where he is both forced into the spotlight and left persistently chasing it. This climactic moment sees the fear of sudden silence faced; an urge to fill the swelling quiet with words is coupled with an inexpressible horror of saying anything at all, as it becomes apparent that he doesn’t know Shakespeare’s immortal ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy.

George launches into a speech of mangled Shakespeare intermingled with anything and everything he has ever committed to memory, including the alphabet, culminating in Lady Macbeth’s famous line screamed in mild hysteria. The moment expertly captures the nature of nightmare, compiled of confession, punishment and vulnerability, to the extent that George is, at one point, literally stripped down before the audience.

In accordance with the illogical nature of dreams and nightmares, the play transitions into another, this time an amalgamation of Beckett, voiced from rubbish bins. The disorientation and helplessness is once again extended to the final play within a play: A Man for All Seasons. George is Sir Thomas More at execution, and here the pacing unfortunately slumps. The moment George finally surrenders to his nightmare feels anticlimactic, with a struggle to evoke the desired tragicomic tone. In accordance with the distorted dream, the audience is left unsure of George’s fate.

Hall and Oats’ ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ marks the play’s conclusion. After thirty minutes of dynamic shifting between times, places and playwrights, it all seems to be over too soon. It is unfortunate that the audience acclimatises to the mechanisms of the play just as it comes to an end. Getting up to leave, there is the sense it should be an intermission before another one act Durang play. However, leaving people wanting more is never a bad thing.