In this strange and lovely production from Teatro Vista, our hero lives a life of dull desperation. He works all day moving papers from one basket to another, with a scowling boss urging him to work harder, and a simpering co-worker who wants more attention than he wants to give.
At home, he watches TV and goes to sleep.
It is in sleep that everything happens, and the office drone (played by the show’s creator, Marvin Quijada) becomes a hero and a warrior. He makes friends with the man in the moon, fights monsters, swims in a sea of colorful puppet fish, and falls in love with a star that fell from heaven. His quest, though he has to learn it, is figuring out how to bring his dream life into his real one.
That’s the simple but profound story of “The Dream King,” a silent play created by Quijada, a clown and mime also known as “Silent Marvin,” and co-directed by Sandra Marquez and Alice da Cunha. The show is in the style of a silent movie, with actors using exaggerated gestures and expressions, aided by flickering black-and-white projected subtitles in English, Polish and Spanish along the sides of the stage.
A fantastical show like this, with few words and such a simple, symbolic story, can only work with the best performers and design, and Teatro Vista brings it. Quijada, a marvelous actor with a comic, mobile face and an infinite store of gestures, has both the emotional range of silent movie master Buster Keaton and the lightness of Harold Lloyd. A veteran of the Silent Theatre Company, Quijada pitched “The Dream King” to Teatro Vista two years ago, and he carries the show, making the audience laugh and cheer for him in both his waking and dreaming life. His fellow cast members, especially Jean Claudio as the glowering boss and Ashlyn Lozano as the star girl, are also excellent. The actors are like children engaged in a comic and intense game of make-believe.
The set design by Joe Schermoly and costumes by Caitlin McLeod add to the sense of whimsy—with blue, diaphanous curtains opening behind Quijada to lead the audience into his dream space, with a Dr. Seuss-like landscape with stairs to heaven, and a garden of colorful feet. Like the score for a silent movie, continuous music fits the mood of the action. You can hear snatches of Delibes’ “The Flower Duet,” jazz, and original work from Quijada, sound designer Matthew Chapman, Elliot Taggart and Ethan T. Parcell.
One flaw in the production is that it’s a tad long, with the sequences of waking and sleeping repeating a few times too often. The low, blue lighting of the dream sequences can make you sleepy—drink tea, not wine, before this show. Fortunately, the energy of the players never lags.
Now that the pandemic restrictions have mostly been lifted, it’s exciting to see people back in the theater, doing unusual shows like this to full and enthusiastic houses. As performed in the old and cozy Chopin Theatre, “The Dream King” is reminiscent of shows from the Lookingglass or the now-defunct Redmoon Theater. There’s joy here, and originality, and love of storytelling. It feels like the Chicago theater scene is waking up again, after a long and troubled sleep.
“The Dream King” from Teatro Vista, at Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division, teatrovista.org. Through June 18.