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Bedtime Stories

Review: Urland’s ‘Bedtime Stories’ at Stanford Live rekindles childhood awe and terror

Audiences to this sound-driven show from the Dutch collective Urland might find themselves transported back to childhood.

From the San Francisco Chronicle

By Lily Janiak

Theater is the campfire — the gathering, the hush, the storyteller arising in firelight to kindle a world and its people from only voice, gesture, expression and listeners’ imaginations.

But theater is also something even more intimate, “Bedtime Stories” says. It’s the one-on-one exchange of the childhood bedside. There, the rest of the scary world is kept outside the bedroom window but looms nonetheless, while an adult authority figure perches motionless and speaks low from above, using silly voices for different characters but revealing something dark and unsettled in himself in the way he tells his story.

Audiences to this sound-driven show from the Dutch collective Urland might find themselves transported back to childhood, with its commingling of terror and awe and curiosity. But “Bedtime Stories,” which opened Wednesday, March 2, at Stanford Live’s Frost Amphitheater, achieves still more.

The show seats patrons on the stage itself, facing the amphitheater’s grassy hillside, empty and opening into the stars. As you walk in, solo performer Thomas Dudkiewicz, who also conceived the show, is already seated at a table, two microphones and a small collection of gadgets in front of him. He regards the assembling crowd with unabashed yet unobtrusive interest — maybe a smile that’s gentle then distant, his eyes great pools, already with all the expression of a silent film star’s.

In slow motion, he revs up his index finger and presses a button, unleashing a thunderclap. The soundscape, designed by Jimi Zoet and Tomas Loos, has begun.

“It was a dark and lonesome night,” the narrator says in a resonant voice, midway between a growl and a purr. Soon footsteps pipe in, and so exquisite is the sound design that you can picture every fine crumb of gravel on which feet fall.

This narrator begins all his stories with the same line — not a limitation but a prompt, an invitation, a launching pad. He can be a man carrying a mysterious and powerful box. He can be a squirrel seeking shelter with a badger. He can be an antisocial stargazer who finds himself in an increasingly intimate silence with a strange woman.

The show cannily switches back and forth between the stories themselves and the story of the man telling them. He’s a quiet oddball who spins tales as a way to navigate life with his wife, daughter and father, a way to investigate but keep at a distance his deep-seated “problems.” “Bedtime Stories” follows him through the years, as his daughter first grudgingly accepts that weird stories are part of the fabric of her family life, then to her stormy adolescence rejecting and ridiculing them, then into a heart-draining, viscera-clenching family tragedy.

All the while, Dudkiewicz is manipulating the sound design even as he performs, sending the little girl’s scream he’s vocalizing to different speakers that surround the audience, adroitly suggesting the way a youngster can make tantrum into all-enveloping, ever-evolving aria that ends only when she gets what she wants.

Read the full review.