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A CurtainUp Review

Dream On Monkey Mountain
By Jenny Sandman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

You claim that with the camera of your eye, you have taken a photograph of God-and that all you could see was blackness.
---Dream On Monkey Mountain
Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Dream On Monkey Mountain begins with sustained, thundering reverb, a startling and unsettling noise that increases in volume. Normally one's eardrums throb like that only at a Slayer concert. Then comes a woman wrapped from head to toe-in white, against a curtain of fire and a swollen, talismanic moon. Then, of course, comes a man with a top hat and a skull.

This is the portentous and surrealistic dream around which the whole action of the play centers. Makak, an old hermit, has lived alone on Monkey Mountain his whole life. The dream he dreams one nightforces him off the mountain and on a journey toward Africa. How Makak will get from a small Caribbean island to Africa does not seem to trouble him in the least. With his only friend, Moustique, unwillingly accompaniing him, Makak becomes a sort of faith healer. When Moustique is killed in a marketplace riot, Makak is jailed and once he manages to escape with two other convictshe only wants to go home to Monkey Mountain.

The play represents Makak's search for home, but it is also about native man being oppressed by colonial rule and the clash of West Indian and English culture. Planted squarely in the world of magical realism, Makak's story is more than once reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. However it is more expressionistic than magical (expressionistic as in Expressionism, as in Eugene O'Neill's Emporer Jones).

Derek Walcott, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Trinidad and is the world's premiere West Indian poet and playwright. Dream On Monkey Mountain, originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, is widely considered to be his most ambitious play. Its writing is a typically fierce yet elegant mixture of island patois and blank verse.

Classical Theatre of Harlem, fresh from last year's success with Genet's The Blacks, has again mounted a colorful and evocative production. Indeed, this Dream On Monkey Mountain is so energetic and filled with native rhythms and songs and dances that it overpowers the poetry. That's a shame since the strange delicacy of the language which is the best part of the play is drowned under the weight of drums and choreographed dances and shrieking choruses. Even Andre de Shields, a marvel as Makak, is overwhelmed at times though he manages to hold his own. He and Kim Sullivan as Moustique are the showpieces of the evening.

Brecht once said, "There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line." Makak is either a visionary or a madman something the dreamlike structure of this work never clarifies. We are thus left unsure whether Makak has stopped dreaming.

De Shields comes close to brilliance in his ability to balance his performance between madness and genius. He is a powerful and physical actor and the perfect choice for this role. Sullivan offers a grounded and at times funny counterweight to de Shields' whirlwind.

The ensemble serves as a sort of uber-athletic Greek chorus, dancing and stomping and singing. Their choreography, by Bruce Heath, seems inspired by Once on This Island or The Lion King, but is fresh and vigorous and makes excellent use of the small space. Banded by a single curtain and a screen of bamboo poles, the stage is as dreamlike as the play itself.

This is a long play and at times the decibel level is near-deafening. However, de Shields offers such a compelling and well-informed performance and director Preisser molds all the variegated elements into an almost-cohesive whole. It's all a bit like triple-chocolate fudge -- at times too much, though it would be just right in smaller dosest.

Written by Derek Walcott
Directed by Alfred Preisser
With Andre de Shields, Kim Sullivan, Benton Greene, Jerry Clicquot, Michael Early, Arthur James Solomon, Neil Dawson, Dele, Celli Pitt, De'adre Aziza, Jaime Carrillo, Tracy Jack, Adenrele Ojo, Catherine Jean-Charles, and Melanie J-B Charles
Set Design by Troy Hourie
Lighting Design by Aaron Black
Costume Design by Kimberly Glennon
Sound Design by Matt Kraus
Choreography by Bruce Heath
Running time: Two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission
Classical Theatre of Harlem, Harlem School of the Arts, 645 St. Nicholas Ave., near 141st Street, 212-868-4444
Through October 26 -- extended to 11/01/03
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on October 9th performance

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