The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

The Dream Laboratory, presented by Essential Theatre, Shorts Place, Geelong January 7, 2022.
Once upon a time a Geelong property developer had a dream to create the biggest and best night club and bar complex the city had ever seen. They spent buckets of money converting a former night club and bar in the city centre only to find that the concept wouldn’t financially stand up. So their project sat empty and stalled for several years until Geelong’s Essential Theatre came along with a dream of its own. It was an unusual concept for Essential Theatre. The company had won its reputation by staging quality productions of Shakespeare’s plays in regional open air venues – wineries and gardens – each summer. But it took to its new indoor project with care, theatrical flair and prudent planning – only to be met by a couple of unforeseen snags.
First came Covid with its postponements and restrictions, which meant the dream’s planning and prep stages had to be extended way beyond expectations; then on the official opening night the heavens over Geelong opened with a summer thunderstorm downpour and the venue leaked. Meaning cast and crew found themselves mopping up instead of performing.
And that’s how this critic found himself standing in downmarket Shorts Place, behind the former Eureka Hotel, with 30 fellow patrons at 8.30pm for a postponed opening night. We had all been screened, Covid vac—checked and stamped with an Eye of Horus to prove it.
We were waiting to be allowed entry to the second staging – but official first night – of The Dream Laboratory. This brand-new original production was promoted as ‘an immersive theatrical experience’ which gave a promise of innovation and avant-garde thinking. Beyond that, nobody in our little band quite knew what to expect. Once the doors opened we were lightly questioned on our sleep patterns then ushered into a stark former bar-room, now repurposed as a laboratory, where a female subject lay sleeping on a gurney inside the central bar.
Meanwhile a handful of lab technicians in pink coats surveyed us with innocent questions about our own dreams.
Then the stern project leader announced that we were to witness a new experiment whereby we would all be able to experience the dreams of the sleeping subject, whose name was Hermia.
We were welcome to wander at will among her dreams, she said, which would occur in the rooms and corridors surrounding the lab. We could touch, open and experience everything but not take anything away. And on the the cue that Hermia had reached REM, a wall curtain was raised revealing a tall ultra-high-heeled violet-painted drag artist miming to ‘Lilac Wine’ who in turn opened up doors to dreamland.
This was to be fifty minutes of surreal theatrical magic inside the former nightclub’s spaces that were themselves pretty bizarre. The whole experience left every one of us dazzled, spellbound and eventually feeling that we had indeed been part of a dream. The encounters and adventures were so many and ongoing they were difficult to recall – just like the dreams they portrayed. There were odd tasks to carry out, scores of strange spaces, cupboards and drawers to open and explore – each with surreal contents from sinking ships to ladders to lilac dolls and eyes – always eyes.
There were peculiar people for us to meet, from a strange smiling Puck-like gnome encouraging us to experiment further, to a mysterious mistress asking how she could escape the pink boudoir that imprisoned her.
Rival Shakespearian heroes held sword-fights then disappeared; Peter Quince appeared performing tricks and vanished, too.
For every event, emergence and occurrence carried that remarkable ethereal and unreal dream-like quality.
An emerging rival dressed in skin-tight sequins took on more prominence as the dream progressed until she led us all back to the original laboratory where Hermia awoke and we all were all delivered back to reality.
This highly unusual piece of theatre had no programme or list of performers, so I can’t give you the usual run-down credits.
But I can say that such was the quality of the Essential Theatre’s writing, direction and acting skills that talk among those of us marked with the Eye of Horus walking to our cars past Little Malop Street’s restaurants was that it felt that we had really experienced a dream. And the outdoor diners, wait staff and floodlit venues – though attractive – to us all appeared remarkably ordinary. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the mark of a truly unreal experience. I can’t recommend The Dream Laboratory highly enough. Please go and experience it – and you’ll see for yourselves how creative theatrical minds can turn a failed nightclub into a dream venue.

– Colin Mockett