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The Classical Theater of Harlem clearly doesn’t balk at theatrical challenges. Last season’s program included Genet’s The Blacks and Witkiewicz’s The Crazy Locomotive, two innovative landmarks that defy the cookie-cutter model of playwriting favored by today’s tremulous artistic directors. The company’s fall season features Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain, a sprawling poetic epic that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, utopia and political debacle. The play takes the form of a hallucination, where the plot is routinely subverted and characters die only to be reborn again. It’s more than a little puzzling, and the production, directed by Alfred Preisser, was understandably having trouble finding its footing during an early preview.
The story revolves around Makak (played with gusto by veteran André De Shields), a prophet-like figure whose longing to return to his ancestral homeland leads him on a visionary journey suggesting the philosophical plight of the African diaspora. The protagonist is haunted by a white phantom (Délé), imprisoned by a mulatto corporal (Michael Early), and bonded to his sidekick Moustique (Kim Sullivan), who both mercenarily exploits and spiritually rescues him. Walcott constructs a universe that has enormous theatrical vitality though little dramatic thrust. Symbolic meaning serves as a substitute for coherent action.
Preisser elicits crisp performances from his cast, but the production never establishes a disciplined rhythm. The pacing is erratic, with bursts of singing and dancing that serve mainly as temporary distractions from the narrative confusion. A razzle-dazzle approach may keep an audience in their seats but it doesn’t unlock the theatrical meanings of a literary work that speaks in the coded language of dreams.