SCENES & MOTIONS: Sleepless nights
'The Hero's Wife' and 'Harold and the Purple Crayon' onstage
“To die, to sleep — to sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come …” — Hamlet
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by sleep. Sleep, dreams, and nightmares.
What happens to me when I am asleep? What happens to my wife as she lies next to me? What happens to our dogs? What do other people feel when they are sleeping? Why do we have nightmares? What does a small child dream about?
Two of Atlanta’s most reliably creative spaces are pulling audiences into very different dreamscapes. Synchronicity Theatre’s The Hero’s Wife confronts the violent night terrors of a war veteran who unknowingly attacks his young wife in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, the Center for Puppetry Arts wields invisible technology to conjure the fantastic midnight reveries of Harold and The Purple Crayon.
At first glance, the two world-premiere productions could not be more different. Yet both make intense private moments palpably real, and feature characters (and local artists) exhibiting strengths and skills we haven’t seen before.
Chicago-based playwright Aline Lathrop’s sharp one-act at Synchronicity grabs us from the opening moments: A man and a woman are lying asleep together when he suddenly screams and tries to punch her in the face. She ducks instinctively, but his second blow sends her sprawling. Just as quickly, he falls back into a deep sleep, unaware that anything has happened. End scene.
For the next 80 minutes, the action shifts back and forth, in short emotional scenes, from waking to sleeping moments. What we are seeing are the first few months after Cameron, a 40-year-old Navy SEAL, is thrown back into civilian life with his young wife Karyssa following his final tour of duty in Iraq, during which he was MIA for several weeks. What happened to him? What did he do while he was missing in action? What wartime horrors is he reliving in his sleep? What is he screaming during his violent nightmares, and why is he screaming in Arabic, a language he claims not to speak or understand? Is he hallucinating? Is he going insane?
Cam doesn’t remember what happens when he’s asleep and, like so many veterans, he won't talk about what happened overseas or acknowledge he’s suffering from PTSD. Karyssa, a yoga teacher barely out of college, fears her husband will commit suicide if she tells him he’s hitting her. She makes excuses for her bruises when he asks about them. As the nightmare violence escalates, the characters slowly start to switch places during the day. Cam, reluctant to ever leave the house, begins losing his macho, romantic, lover-in-charge attitude, becoming increasingly paranoid, impulsive, fragile, and vulnerable. We watch as Karyssa evolves from a sweet, sexy, emotionally open wife and nervous partner walking on eggshells to a physically strong, emotionally guarded woman sharing a bed with a trained killer.
Joe Sykes is convincing as a strong, damaged man desperate to hide his emotional problems. But since Lathrop designed her play (quite smartly) from Karyssa’s point of view, the most powerful character arc belongs to Rebecca Robles’ young newlywed as she fights physically and emotionally to save herself and the man she still loves.
Using only light shifts and subtle background sounds, director Rachel May and her design team slide the drama from day to night and back almost seamlessly. Sykes’ Cameron and Robles’ Karyssa slip in and out of the double bed where they make love, snuggle, and fall sleep, only to have their romantic bliss erupt into sudden violence. The all aqua-and-white set appears realistic at first glance, but some of the ceiling, walls, and empty bookshelves are slightly off-kilter. Things are not what they seem.
As Karyssa watches her husband sleep peacefully, she says, “No one ever really knows another person, do they?” If other people are not always who we thought they were, when should we trust our perceptions of anything else? What is objective reality? How different is memory from fantasy? If we love or fear a person or a place or a thing, does that make it real, regardless of whether anyone else perceives it?
Questioning or trusting the power of imagination may be the core of Crockett Johnson’s 1955 classic children’s picture book, Harold and The Purple Crayon, which, like The Hero’s Wife, begins (we can assume) at night in a bedroom.
One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight. There wasn’t any moon, and Harold needed a moon for a walk in the moonlight. And he needed something to walk on. He made a long straight path so he wouldn’t get lost. And he set off on his walk, taking his big purple crayon with him. But he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere on the long straight path. So he left the path… .
Just like in all five “Purple Crayon” books, Harold, in the Center’s ingenious production, creates an entire world with his crayon. When he's hungry, he draws a picnic lunch of nine pies. When he draws a dragon, then becomes scared of it, his purple crayon fashions an ocean and a sailboat for his escape just in time. He draws himself over the ledge of a cliff and then quickly sketches a hot-air balloon to safely float away. And so on. Eventually, our little hero longs for home and begins drawing dozens of windows in high-rise buildings hoping to “find” his own window with its view of the same moon that always hangs above him. He finally draws his window around the moon and decides he must be home.
“And then Harold made his bed. He got in it and he drew up the covers.”
Except he’s not home. Joshua A. Krisch, in an essay about the book on Fatherly, an online site for dads, calls Harold and the Purple Crayon “Inception for kids.” He goes further, noting that Peter Nolan's science fiction action film “suggests that you can fall into your own dreams so deeply that you never escape, and the best you can hope for is that your imagination will recreate a world so similar to your own that you cannot recognize it for what it is — a dream, a nightmare. This, too, is Harold’s fate. He ends the book lost in a land entirely defined by his own imagination. It has a window, a moon, a bed, but it isn’t home. Nonetheless, Harold drifts off to sleep content.”
In director Jon Ludwig’s original and delightfully trippy production, Harold, his crayon, and many of the objects and creatures he “draws” are puppets that gently glow under bright black lights in dreamy shades of vivid purple, pink, and magenta. Whatever purple lines Harold draws appear magically in front of and around him: Purple train tracks run beneath his feet, a purple boat floats by. At times, he uses his crayon like a wand to create whole buildings to explore or a sky full of stars to fly in as he takes off on his rocket ship.
How do you make imaginary lines appear to flow out of a puppet crayon? Ludwig and his team of creative geniuses at the Center adapted a 200-year old technology known as “Pepper’s Ghost.” Created in the mid-1800s, Pepper’s Ghost projected images off large glass panels to create ghostlike figures in the air. Ludwig’s team tracked down a rare sheet of very fragile, ultra-reflective material and stretched it in front of and above the stage at a 45-degree angle. Two projectors direct animations onto a screen below the stage which are reflected by the sheet into the space in front of the invisible puppeteers, who are covered in black, like ninjas.
The entire effect is wonderful, whimsical, liberating, and genuinely comforting. The large audience of young children, including my eight-year old niece and her older friends, were enchanted and amused from beginning to end. As was I. Like Crockett’s beloved books, the Puppetry Center’s 45-minute show isn’t worried about life lessons or adults setting rules or saving the day. There is just pure experience, imagination, and childhood run wild. Ludwig’s Harold and The Purple Crayon invites people of all ages to see the magic in everyday objects and ordinary moments — to create our own reality.
I’ve always aspired to try to live life as a waking, lucid dream. Or, as the magician Prospero explained to his niece in The Tempest, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."
The Hero’s Wife at Synchronicity Theatre, Peachtree Pointe, 1545 Peachtree Street, now through May 5. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m. 404 484-8636.
Harold and the Purple Crayon at Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring Street NW, now through May 26, Tuesdays through Sundays. 404 873-3391.
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