My Coma Dreams at Peak Performances

Sunday afternoon Culturebot went out to Montclair’s Kasser Theater to check out Fred Hersch’s My Coma Dreams as part of the Peak Performances series. It was a beautiful piece, seamlessly combining music, theater and video into one coherent, dream-like narrative.

Based on eight dreams and nightmares experienced by the jazz composer/pianist Fred Hersch when he survived a two-month coma in the summer of 2008, My Coma Dreams moves gently between monologue, jazz and song to simultaneously trace Hersch’s inner journey and tell the story of how his coma affected those around him.

Writer/director Herschel Garfein has crafted an insightful and compassionate story that is told by actor Michael Winther who narrates, sings and plays all the characters. With a simple turn of the shoulder or a spin, Winther effortlessly switches between characters, telling the story from multiple perspectives. Interwoven into the narrative are beautiful jazz compositions that riff on everything from Thelonious Monk to show tunes.

Sometimes the show is funny, for instance when Winther, playing Hersch’s life partner, acts out the difference between comas in the movies and comas in real life. While the monologue is driven by anger and disbelief, it is humorous enough to make us laugh at the myths that Hollywood sells and we so readily consume.

Occasionally the writing overreaches and veers into the maudlin, but mostly it is deft and insightful. We alternate from within Hersch’s coma dreams to the real world of catheters and intubation, of anxious waiting, concern and occasionally despair.

Hersch is onstage the whole time, accompanying the show on piano and leading his band. But the director never makes too much of it. The moment where Hersch finally stands up from the piano and faces his doppelganger (Winther) in the mirror is poignant.

From a meditation on the life of St. Vincent de Paul to a strange interlude at a “Jazz Diner in the woods”, the show crosses across the lines of waking life and dream life, lulling us into thoughtful, engaged reverie. Animation artist Sarah Wickliffe has created a swirling pastiche of visual imagery that places dream worlds and reality in juxtaposition, always adding to the overall composition of the piece, never drawing focus.

Hersch’s jazz compositions are amazing – complicated, nuanced, melodic and textured. They are evocative and they really move. Winther is a wonderful actor with a beautiful voice, equally comfortable singing and embodying the different characters; he leads us through the show effortlessly, as if gliding on the music that is creating the atmosphere.

In some ways it is a pretty conventional show – basically a solo show with music. But it achieves a balance of the different elements – narrative, video and song – that is very satisfying and artful. A lot of people strain to make these elements work together, but here it seems really effortless. The show, as they say, has a lot of heart. And the audience I saw it with really appreciated it – giving Hersch, Winther and company a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes. Hopefully the show will have a life beyond its engagement at Montclair.

My Coma Dreams

Music by Fred Hersch
Written and Directed by Herschel Garfein
Animation and Graphic Design by Sarah Wickliffe
Video Systems Design by Eamonn Farrell
Lighting Design by Aaron Copp
Performed by The Fred Hersch Ensemble
Michael Winther, actor/singer

*Photo courtesy of

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  1. Pingback: Great review of MY COMA DREAMS | the fred hersch film project
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