Chicago Theater Review: THE SANDMAN (Oracle)

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by Paul Kubicki on June 22, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


There is something passing strange at the Oracle Theatre, and you won’t want to miss it. In Oracle’s The Sandman, dreams are not to be trusted, illusion and reality are constantly confused, and childhood fairytales prove to be fatal. Bob Fisher’s stage adaptation of E.T.A Hoffman’s 1816 fantastical, somewhat stream-of-conscious work, “Der Sandmann” is 80 minutes of heart-pounding, riveting live theatre.

The piece takes the traditional folklore of the Sandman, the kindly lord of dreaming who lulls children to sleep by sprinkling sand into their eyes, and corrupts it into a gruesome horror story. Hoffman’s Sandman throws sand into children’s eyes when they refuse to sleep, then collects their eyes once they fall out, using them to feed his children. The story starts as a series of correspondences between mentally unhinged university student Nathaniel, his domineering soon-to-be wife Clara, and Clara’s relatively sane brother Lothario. It unfolds into a masterful, compelling, frightful tale that slips in and out of dreams, and drives Nathaniel into insanity.

Paul Kubicki’s Chicago review of The Sandman at OracleFisher’s adaptation of the tale utilizes much of the original language, making the piece a bit dense for a show with no intermission, but it is nonetheless a beautiful experience. The monologues that drive the plot at times serve to conceal it instead—it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes into the play that I began to understand who any of the characters even were. Still, this is much in the style of the original work. The adaptation is very faithful, and ultimately, it translates exceptionally well.

Opening the show as a sort of schizophrenic automaton, Simina Contras delivers an utterly chilling performance. Her gripping monologue tells us the folklore of the Sandman, and I can honestly say that this is one of the first times I’ve been genuinely frightened in a theatre. Throughout the show, whether as Clara or as Nathaniel’s mother, Contras conjures up a riveting, compelling, highly physical and ultimately quite terrifying performance, which stands out even amongst a very small cast.

Paul Kubicki’s Chicago review of The Sandman at Oracle

As the various imaginary (or are they?) incarnations of the Sandman, Dave Belden shows himself to be an exceptionally versatile performer, compelling in all of his roles. Belden looms eerily about the set, delivering a performance to match Contras in ferocity. Christopher Hart also delivers a convincing anxiety-ridden Nathaniel, although it’s a bit of a one-note performance. He is constantly aggressive, offering no real sentimentality to the role. Ben Hertel is quite strong and immensely versatile as both young Nathaniel and Lothair, Clara’s studious, concerned brother.

Paul Kubicki’s Chicago review of The Sandman at Oracle

But the real titan here is director Max Truax, whose direction is as smooth and intricate as clockwork, though never feels mechanical. He shrouds the play with mysterious ritual, utilizing grotesque puppets (beautifully designed by Tracy Otwell) and quite a bit of masterful video feeds (devised by Ben Fuchsen) to create a dreamlike, mystic feel. His staging ensures that the actors are almost always speaking directly to the audience (or into a camera, projected onto the back wall). Characters seldom actually face one another while speaking to each other. Instead, they speak to illusions of one another—a puppet, a video projection, or just an imaginary version of the other person. While occasionally confusing, it is a seriously powerful effect that significantly adds to the tale Truax is weaving. Based on Sandman alone, Truax is an innovator worth following. Also worth mentioning, as their work was tremendous, are Karen M. Thompson’s eerie lighting design, Jonathan Guillen’s sound design, and the technical direction of Justin Snyder, who co-designed the set with Truax.

For those unfamiliar with the Oracle, it is a Public Access Theatre—meaning it is completely free, other than donations. I was fairly surprised to find theatre of this caliber by a company dedicated to public access, but they are creating incredible art. The Sandman is intricate, unique, and absolutely thrilling—and for free? Passing that up is ludicrous.

photos by Ben Fuchsen

The Sandman
Oracle Theatre
ends on June 30, 2012
for tickets, visit Oracle

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Hart June 26, 2012 at 10:42 pm

What was this play about?


Paul Kubicki June 27, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Touche, Chris!

Honestly, I avoided a plot summary because I walked out of the theatre not entirely sure. I’ve seen it a second time since then, and am a little more sure of what happened. It’s about Nathaniel, a University Student, who believes that during his childhood the Sandman tried to steal his eyes and killed his father. Nathaniel swears revenge on the Sandman for killing his father, and Clara (his betrothed) and Lothario (Clara’s brother) try to convince him the Sandman is a childhood fantasy that his father was engulfed by. A glass peddler (who sells glass eyes, made originally of sand) comes to his door, launching Nathaniel into an investigation that pushes him to the very brink of sanity.

And that, dear Chris, is what it’s about. Any more would be filled with spoilers. Honestly, I didn’t pick up on a lot of that the first time I watched it. Still a thrilling show.


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