Time. What is it? We know when we’ve wasted it, or want more of it, but we’re too infrequently cognizant of its passing, of its working on us, and of the finite quantity allotted to us. In Quantum Theatre’s production of Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s 1999 play Dream of Autumn (translated and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde), a reigning visual metaphor is the shifting sands of time, both in the form of hourglasses hung strategically downstage, and as the material into which old items from old houses appear to be slowly sinking. The gorgeous, haunting scenic design (by Narelle Sissons, who also designed the costumes) signals a world in which time is a major character, its workings whimsical, mysterious, and willful, much like the old furniture, which emits odd and inappropriate sounds at the slightest provocation (courtesy of Joe Pino’s sound design). Where are we? In a graveyard, we’re told by the characters, but probably (given the play’s title) in a dream, or perhaps (given its ending) in the dreamlike last moments of consciousness of a Man (played by Martin Giles) as he rewinds key moments in his life in jumbled fragments. A Woman (Karla Boos) arrives – is she leading him to his death, as his Mother (Laurie Klatscher) frets? Is this Woman a flame from his past, or a future wife, or merely a conjuration of his imagination? Are they there for his grandmother’s burial, as his Father (Gregory Lehane) insists? Or have they simply met by chance, as their dialogue in the opening scene would indicate?
In a 2004 interview with playwright Caridad Svich, Fosse observed that “one of our illusions is that if we manage to communicate well, every problem can be solved. The German philosopher Adorno said that art is the opposition to communication.” As my list of questions above makes clear, Dream of Autumn is not a work that seeks to communicate a story, at least not a linear one; rather, it seems to want to impart an experience of how time works — that is, of how past and present and even future are all a part of every moment of each of our lives, of how our own future deaths, and the past or future deaths of those we love, are, in imperceptible ways, tied into our present “now.” The when and where of the play is a space of abstraction, where big subjects, like LOVE and DEATH (as the Man reminds us more than once during the course of the play, not without a hint of nudge-nudge-wink-wink irony) get probed and examined. It’s a cool space, with a stark theatricality that reminded me of a number of productions I’d seen in Germany in the 1980s and 90s, and Sissons’s set is beautifully lit in atmospheric reds, blues and greens by C. Todd Brown. The production’s Northern European aesthetic feels right for the spare dialogue, through which, as Fosse notes, the characters “don’t manage to communicate” and yet “understand one another completely.” But at the same time, the frigid atmosphere poses an almost insurmountable challenge for Boos and Giles in their attempts to generate the erotic heat that several of the scenes require.
Like other dream plays I can think of – and the two that most immediately spring to mind are also by a Nordic playwright, the Swedish August Strindberg’s Dream Play and Ghost Sonata – Dream of Autumn involves repetition, pauses, bewildering shifts in space and time, and actions and events that defy the laws of physics (it starts to rain on just one character, for example). Such theatrical worlds demand that you surrender yourself to them, as you would to a dream. And here’s where I’m going to get a little cranky. That kind of surrender is a lot easier when one is physically comfortable. I love the fact that Quantum challenges its audiences with new and often difficult works in unusual spaces, but one challenge I could do without is trying to endure an hour-plus of sitting still in the world’s most uncomfortable metal folding chair. A couple of years ago Bricolage raised funds for new seating in response to audience complaints, and they found a wonderful solution to the back and hip dilemma. So, I hereby call on the Quantum-loving public to band together to raise funds to help Quantum purchase its own stock of comfortable, storeable, portable seating. None of us are getting any younger, after all: unlike in Fosse’s play, time has an unfortunate habit of only going in one direction in the real world.