Review: ‘A Dream Within A Dream: Madness’ at Through The 4th Wall

Hats off to the totally nifty, quite intense, immersive production of A Dream Within A Dream: Madness at Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Arts Center. Created by Through the 4th Wall Dreams is abundantly more than just another interactive theatrical production. It is a playfully eerie, deep well of creativity to savor and all while walking about the 3-story Torpedo Factory in the semi-darkness surrounded by…well, about 25 or so fascinating “Mad Hatter” characters.

Virginia Clemm Poe (Bette Casatt) and Edgar Allan Poe (Ian Blackwell Rogers). Photo by John Nelson.
Virginia Clemm Poe (Bette Casatt) and Edgar Allan Poe (Ian Blackwell Rogers). Photo by John Nelson.

Dreams is just quite the delightful doozie of dark illusions and surreal interpretations of the short-life, long-lived works and sudden madness of Edgar Allan Poe. Well, as seen through the deadened eyes of some characters the audience meets, and the magnetic personalities of other characters as created in the fertile minds of 4th Wall’s Creator/ Director/Producer Jennifer Schwed and Creator/Writer/Director/Producer Doug Bradshaw.

This Through the 4th Wall is true to the company’s mission statement to create site specific performances where all the venue becomes the stage. There are no seats and the audience regularly moves about, never staying put in one place very long.

As for the theatrical characters, well they are so close in the well accomplished gloomy semi- darkness that they reach out to touch the audience; both figuratively and literally. The audience finds itself very willingly smack in the middle of Poe’s 1849 world and mind becoming a key component in over a dozen of Poe’s famous works full of opaque images, somber love poems and twisted literary allusions. The audience is left to wonder what is real and what is madness? And why Poe died so young to be buried in near-by Baltimore.

Now before I go further, let me give kudos to production team that dreamed up Dreams made it happen. So please take a bow, Anne Dorman for set design, John Farr for the wonderfully opaque look of his lighting design, the choreography and traffic control of the large cast credited to Matthew Cumble and all the others on the “4th Wall” technical design team. And, let me also add applause to the uncredited “Moonlight Sonata” along with some well-placed thunder claps. These artisans may it technically possible (and safe for actors and audience alike) to repurpose the Torpedo Factory Arts Center with its three stories, central stairway, large foyer and little cubby holes and temporary rooms and hideaways. And, let me also add applause to the uncredited very detailed costume design and for “Moonlight Sonata” along with some well-placed thunder claps.

It was then up to the 30-member Dreams cast to transport the audience back a far distant from the 21st century by grabbing them and holding them fast into a mad place for the next nearly 90 minutes with only the words they spoke and a flair for dream-like intimate interactions. In the many vignettes (some more riveting than others), the cast used Poe’s own words as their mantra; “All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream.”

As in any large scale ensemble, some actors and characters make a more impactful presence than others. Add to that; Dreams is immersive, interactive theater that includes forming small groups of 6-8 audience members who move about together through floors, scenes with changing guides and in different vignettes order. Therefore, I would expect that each audience member may find themselves with their own views of who had a greater impact.

Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Clemm Poe photographed at Historic Christ Church Graveyard in Alexandria, VA.
Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Clemm Poe photographed at Historic Christ Church Graveyard in Alexandria, VA.

So, for me, certain actors struck more deeply. The way they presented a particular character, their comfort with really close interactions with complete strangers, and their delight in “picking” particular audience members to have a part in the show – are my guidepost.

As the leads, Ian Blackwell Rogers (Edgar Alan Poe) and Bette Cassett (Virginia Poe) give persuasive, melancholy performances that amply the nature of their short-doomed lives together as husband and wife, writer and muse. Rogers presents Poe with a well-accomplished agitated, troubled, apprehensive demeanor. He comes across as a man lost and slowly dying (if not already dead). Cassett has a limpid, waif-like air to her. She radiates a kind of chill; a shiver like that first unexpected winter wind that brings the first frost on plants left out too long. Together Rogers and Cassett give the necessary elemental weight, sticky glue and humanity to the production as the many other characters can float, preen, prance and attract their own attentions..

I also enjoyed these other fine performances:

Seraph: Alexandra Tydings
Mistress of the Mental Health facility: Victoria Reinsel
Madman: Merissa Hart
Detective: Paul Donahoe
Rufus Wilmot Griswold: John LoPorto
The Watcher: Doug Robinson
Model: Jeanine Baumgardner
Seven Dancers known collectively as The Ravens.

Knowing your Poe, that might be a help, but not necessary to the enjoyment. Do pay close attention though, for this is immersive and performed without microphones. Some words might drift into the vast reaches of the Torpedo Factory, some may bounce off of others, but you will always have clues as to what is happening, even if some words are muddy. And each vignette does build upon the previous one and the next one.

Please do take in and become a part of A Dream Within A Dream: Madness if you are the least bit interested in experiencing a love story that takes place in a famously twisted mind in an institution where sanity is an issue all performed in a unique manner.A Dream Within A Dream: Madness is no ghost tour stroll in the dark.

And, let me add this, The Through The 4th Wall production of A Dream Within A Dream: Madness utilizes the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in an unexpected way. I hope it will not be the last time the Torpedo Factory gets decked out for the performing arts that the public can enjoy.

A Dream Within A Dream: Madness Dreams is wonderfully sophisticated entertainment. Gather up your courage. Have your own tell-tale heart ready to beat loudly. Open your mind to the possibilities of love from a way different perspective that in some ways you help craft. You never know what you are going to encounter around each corner.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.


A Dream Within A Dream: Madness plays on selected Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday evenings, September 7 through October 31, 2016 at Through The 4th Wall performing at the Torpedo Factory Art Center – 105 North Union Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.

Note: For those who saw the site-specific, award-winning performances of Madness at the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival, the TFAC production is unlike the previous iteration; the performance site is way different.

In the Moment: ‘A Dream Within A Dream: Madness’ Playing 9/7-10/31 at The Torpedo Factory by David Siegel.

Lauren Katz calls A Dream Within A Dream: Madness, “Clever, fascinating, and visually striking… Dream Within a Dream is a must-see event” in her Capital Fringe Review on July 11, 2014.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1553.gif


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