Then He Wakes Up is a surreal little play with one main idea: the nature and trap of the recurring dream. The play asks: can something change in a this kind of dream dream, and if it does, how can we do it? Can we stop the dream, or its negative events, from happening?
Henry (Jordan Mechano) shows up to wait for the bus, and meets Felix (playwright Matthew Sarookanian, impressively and perfectly awkward), a strange stranger who stands up straight without moving, even to scratch his nose, asks bizarre questions in an attempt to be friends, and seems to know everything about Henry’s life, and what will happen over the course of his day. The one thing that Felix knows is that his involvement in Henry’s day will end with Henry killing him, because it happens every time Felix has this dream.
The play, in its own unique way, has a bit of a Stranger Than Fiction vibe: a character who lives a mundane, boring, routine existence, gradually finds out that he is not the protagonist in his own story; that someone else has created him, is dictating and running his life. Seeing someone’s worldview gradually shatter can make for intriguing theatre. The play is not content just to tell this particular story, but also explores other issues. To add to the mystery, Henry encounters a woman from his past (Perrie Olthuis) and deals with his relationship with the father of his youth (Alex Sims), which alters the tone of the play, as Henry regresses toward childhood. (This is also, perhaps, a sly nod to the common complaint at Fringe that it’s all young theatre students playing older characters; the choice sidesteps it strangely but neatly.)
By the end, there are major questions as to whose dream it is; Felix knows the score and claims the dream, but all of it seems to function under Henry’s psychology (see: the regression) and experiences he must work through. Henry is also the audience’s “in” to the story, the character with whom we most identify, so it’s difficult not to see him as the protagonist. Does this mean that Henry is a part of Felix, through which Felix is working out his own issues, or does that mean that there is more to this dream sequence than meets the eye? What does Henry represent to Felix? Are they in each others’ dreams? Or, is it actually the dream of the final character left on stage? And what happens when he wakes up? The play is stretched a little thin by its end, and so it may bring up more of these questions than it can justify, but they are certainly interesting to think about. Much like a dream, as well, the characters are also thin and a little amorphous; the script is largely focused on developing its main conceit, which is understandable. The piece at the same time feels like it couldn’t be any longer with the ideas it has, and that it could benefit from getting to know the characters better; building a concrete sense of character and worldview makes shattering that sense much more powerful.
Then He Wakes Up is a thoughtful piece that is just different enough to set itself apart from the Fringe pack. It’s worthwhile viewing, though you may want to pinch yourself a couple of times to make sure you’re awake.