Sweet Dreams, Alfie is a harrowing, immersive ride that offers more genuine, heartfelt scares than a hundred haunted houses packed with zombies, ghouls, and animated skeletons.
Alfie, the depressed, sleep-deprived protagonist of Savage Umbrella's new Sweet Dreams, Alfie, is haunted by many things: his dead-end job, his failed relationship, his inability to make sense of the emotional bleakness that has taken over his life.
This makes his nightmares vivid, and more than a bit absurd. So it was a natural reaction that the appearance of a six-foot-tall personification of his cat, Mr. Whiskers, carrying a baseball bat would be met with a few laughs. That's the way nightmares are. If you try to explain them, sometimes the scariest moments will be funny to outsiders.
When we first meet Alfie, he is waking from a nightmare (not the one with the cat), alone on his bed. We start to see his routine. There's the desk jockey job where his only friend is the overbearing and annoying Oswald. There is the weekly meeting with Rosie, his ex who doesn't understand why he moved out. And then there is an evening spent with his sister, who is visiting from his hometown, bearing bad Chinese food.
This sequence repeats throughout the play — bed, work, coffee, dinner, and back — but becomes increasingly fractured as Alfie's perceptions warp. To bring this home, the play is presented in a kind of round, except that it is the audience sitting in the center, while the four stations are positioned around them. That means that no matter where you sit, you are going to have to twist your body and crane your neck to catch all of the action.
It's also clear that the time frames are fracturing along with Alfie's perceptions of reality. It's never clear when the various scenes are taking place or what kind of sequence is implied. They have become a jumbled mess within Alfie's mind. His lack of sleep means that the nightmares are starting to take over the daytime action, until what is real and unreal are completely mixed.
Russ Dugger (who also conceived the show) offers us a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a man collapsing before our eyes. The other performances are more stylized, as the characters are clearly seen through Alfie's fracture gaze. There's plenty of intriguing parts that comes together for something unsettling and terrifying. Mid-century existential dread sits side-by-side with horror-film scares and the workplace horrors of Thomas Ligotti.
IF YOU GO:
Sweet Dreams, Alfie
Through Oct. 24
Savage Umbrella SPACE
550 Vandalia Street, St. Paul, Suite 306
For tickets and more information, visit online.