Dream of the Red Chamber


Wednesday, early evening, I came aground to the digital flash and corporate shockwaves of Times Square. Stood there at the foot of the subway entrance blinking at a billboard picturing Anderson Cooper in dimensions ten-times that of the average New York living space—house-sized earnest newsman face—adorned with the all-caps caption: Go There! Just how I like my journalism: boasting god-sized before my eyes, throwing down exclamation points. I was there!—and how easily I forget that I live three miles from this phenomenon, a spiritually obliterated acre or two casting forth our nightmare of a techno-bank future overseen by cheap-thrills stimuli and sub-literate commerce-consciousness. More screens, more noise. No cynicism here, just mystification—who has brainspace for this horror anymore? Who needs more gigantic M&Ms, because Hershey’s is here to rot your jaws and funnel chocolatey pennies to the GOP; it’s all true, check the sources. While all in the visible distance is neon panties and fructose and has much to do with big dollars and expendables assembled in China. Without knowing why, I found myself standing beside a family taking pictures of a grown fellow who’d stuffed himself into a rubber Batman costume, an outfit not at all custom-fit, especially about his hindquarters and nether regions. While I was trying to get a look at his eyes, hoping to perceive what kind of human lived behind the mask, an aspiring rapper came at me fast with the best come-on I’d heard in years, possibly ever: “Hey man, you like black people?” A true American, more so than myself. He stuck one of his home-burned CDs into my hand and said, “Ten bucks, it’s the shit.” Taxis honking, a man screaming laughter at his phone, and way off someone smacking out rudiments on a tuned-too-high snare drum, or a plastic bucket, or whatever they had. Avenue of the Americas.

And two streets West: Broadway between 45th and 50th is a strip I don’t think about until I’m walking it, always with the purpose of finding something I can’t find anywhere else, but never something as spookily lucid as Dream of the Red Chamber, a flickering, dreamland drama in which time cycles through various impressions of round-the-psyche linearity, a live-art specter churning in the basement of Midtown, New York, while the audience—who come and go as they like; who sleep or wake as they like—lie on small beds, in various stages of immersion, so distantly other from the civilization above. I’d walked in off Broadway, following a red carpet lined with static-channel tube televisions, leading you to the stairs, down into the thing, the chamber, the performance. Oblique white curtains partition various sections, forming cloudlike quarters throughout the room but you can see through everything. You move through it, into it, in search of a bed, and there’s more than enough, all dressed in red linen. Some are just crimson hazes, lying feet away but somewhere else entirely, and others are right out in the open. Your bed chooses you, really, based on several incidentals you can’t make sense of. Maybe you lie right down and look outward: Beautiful, sad, vacant, scared women stare out from screens glowing, rippling with light cast by a golden orb machine propelled by a phonograph record player, at which two audience members might sit meditating, glaring into the twirling mind machine as its strobes turn their thoughts into shapes they’ve never taken before—a totally new experience. Sense those around you as dreamily as you ever will; their nearness feels instantly like shadows. Sense some drifting off on the red beds, some curling up fetal, gone completely into their dream. A few others sit perfectly erect and swallowing the whole atmosphere with their face, telling themselves stories about what all these illusions mean. Lulling every inch of space is a nicely amplified tide of melodic bass drones, rich with subsonic properties that radiate underneath the beds; and, listening upward, you hear soaring above an opera-turned-soundscape singing down so many wonderful sorrows.

The beds are there with good purpose, essential to the dark comfort. You lean back, rest your head. Faces and flickers and melodies begin connecting; the actresses seem to be activating some pattern in one another’s responses, their gestures cycling amongst them; each inhabiting the others’ emotional states, they click in and out of expressions on a twilight schedule, but it all happens with elongated, smeary force that makes you wonder if you’re transcribing your own story, dreaming what you want to dream. But it seems so evident that the women, the actresses, are dreaming out a process that has to do with creation and destruction and possession, or is this my process? Am I acting out my own cycle here, dream-style. You have weird ideas on the red bed, good ones. And then you realize the audience members sitting at the phonograph and staring into the light cylinder are also being filmed, projected onto the great rippling sheets of translucent white. And now they’ve become the chimera, they’re real and illusory, same as all of this.

I’d been tipped off about this occasion by Jeff Jackson, author of the very fine, very brilliant meta-mindmelter Mira Corpora, a book of rare aesthetic ambition—a work of art. Jeff was co-writer and conceiver of Dream of the Red Chamber, along with its director, Jim Findlay. The work is based on Cao Xueqin’s 18th century Chinese novel. The hour I spent within was the best of my week, yet I only glimpsed a fragment of this multi-day, multi-dream, multi-sequence experience. This Saturday, one may enter into an overnight performance: [May 17. 5p to 6a]. A slumber like no other.