Moving Parts Theatre Company

at American Blues Theatre

A woman sits crouched on a step while a man force-feeds her imaginary oatmeal. Across the stage, high atop a platform, a second man drops red and black scarves alternately to a third man on the floor below. The woman turns, watches the scarves fall, and exclaims with delight, “Look! You can see what you’re eating!”

This moment from Moving Parts Theatre Company’s debut production, The Dream Project, perfectly realizes the piece’s expressed intent: to “make something as ephemeral as dreams . . . tangible enough for the audience to experience.” The curious logic of the scene and the simple, arresting beauty of the image create the unmistakable reality Of the dream state. At the same time the gesture is highly theatrical, and the falling scarves provide a vivid picture of food going down the digestive tract.

Unfortunately, moments as well drafted as this one are few and far between in The Dream Project: most of the piece is frustratingly unfocused and awkward. The eight-person cast, under Mike Baron’s direction, employ a great deal of ensemble movement and a minimum of text to surprisingly little effect, considering the rich and varied material dreams provide.

Much of the problem lies in the dreams presented. With few exceptions, the images are remarkably bland: people waiting in line to get tickets and a hand stamp; dancing in a nightclub; a television program hosted by Bob Costas. Nor do these images seem to evoke strong emotional reactions from the actors. When confronted by certain threatening characters, for example, the fear or anger the actors express seems strangely halfhearted–and nothing in dreams is ever halfhearted. Those images with greater poetic potential, like the one of a beautiful child covered with open sores who bites those who try to comfort her, are rarely allowed to evolve.

The actors seem to have little stake in the scenes, and the result is a piece both sketchy and static. Real dreams present themselves as engrossing stories, full of bizarre events that grow inexplicably and seamlessly out of one another. The Dream Project generally presents images in isolation, as if a simple list were being staged. The piece is drained of the sense of urgency that drives a dream–and theater. There is no momentum to carry the audience through this series of intentionally unrelated images.

The images also tend to lack psychological depth, and the presentation–almost everything is mimed without benefit of props or stand-ins for props, so the audience rarely sees what’s being described–does little to excite the imagination. To be strong and numinous, an image must resonate on several levels. The image of food passing through the body is evocative–like X rays, dreams allow us to peer beneath the surface–but most of the other scenes are disappointingly literal and one-dimensional. Though the company admirably refrains from interpreting the images for the audience, the images must still invite interpretation to engage the viewer.

It also seems an odd choice for the cast to rely heavily upon movement when their physicality is so restrained. There is so little text that Jennifer Savarirayan’s ensemble choreography must carry much of the show, yet the performers seem ill at ease with her simple gestures, rarely carrying a movement to its natural extreme–a hesitancy that drains the movement of its expressive potential.

On the other hand, Marty Higgenbotham’s original music, which he performs live, is terrifically expressive and provides a solid aural foundation for the piece–a foundation that’s never built upon. His jazzy new-age score is full of crisp, clear instrumentation, carving out a distinct emotional niche for each section. If only the performances had some of the precision and clarity of Higgenbotham’s score.

Fundamentally The Dream Project lacks the attention to visual detail that’s critical to such a piece. Clay Snider’s vibrant set is marred by red and black curtains strung up like laundry, the costumes are an assortment of mismatched blue street clothes, and Baron seems more concerned with the mechanics of getting people on- and offstage than with creating vivid stage pictures. The Dream Project is simply not very interesting to look at–and for a piece built almost entirely of images, that’s an unfortunate oversight.