Jeton Neziraj was only a tween when he witnessed Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of war and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. After Neziraj’s native Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, he rose to become one of the country’s preeminent playwrights, a political voice whose incendiary works have sometimes earned him the enmity of prominent Kosovar officials — and cost him the post of artistic director of the National Theatre of Kosovo.
Neziraj’s surreal and wildly imaginative “Department of Dreams” is having its world premiere at City Garage in Santa Monica, although considering the cycle of world events recently, you’ll have to decide just how surreal the play actually. The dystopian fable, translated by Alexandra Channer, centers on citizens forced to “deposit” their dreams at a monolithic governmental bureaucracy as part of a campaign of intimidation and terror.
The premiere represents a coup for City Garage’s founders, artistic director Frédérique Michel and producing director Charles A. Duncombe, whose company has been presenting edgy theater for more than 30 years. Michel, who also directs, and Duncombe, whose typically stunning production design is a highlight, do full service to Neziraj’s savagely topical, darkly funny piece.
John Logan plays Dan, the starry-eyed new hire at the Department of Dreams. He is being shown the ropes by a deceptively welcoming Official (David E. Frank). Also deceptive is the apparent kindliness of the Master (Bo Roberts), the department’s top dream interpreter, whose surface avuncularity covers killer instincts.
When Dan witnesses the abject Dreambuilder (Aaron Bray) flagellating himself in order to conjure the hidden dreams of prominent figures, he’s shocked and suggests that the department consider more humane methods. That streak of compassion ultimately proves to be Dan’s downfall, as does his growing love for the mysterious Night (Angela Beyer) — human emotion making him vulnerable to the torture and totalitarianism of a bureaucracy gone mad.
Despite the warnings of his predecessor (Gifford Irvine), an escaped bureaucrat of possibly supernatural origin, Dan hurtles toward his doom. Whether he will be destroyed — or subsumed into a corrupt system — is the question.
Michel’s staging, combined with Duncombe’s animated projections — a sort of Dadaesque Betty Boop — complete Neziraj’s Orwellian portrait of a mad world in which all individuality is suppressed.
This is not an easy play. It’s difficult to understand, at times incomprehensible. But it is important work by a world-class playwright who challenges our complacency at every twist and turn.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 8
Info: (310) 453-9939, citygarage.org
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
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