Marvin Quijada’s whole body fills with electricity as he jumps out of a vertical bed on the stage of the Chopin Theater in Chicago’s West Town. In the dreamworld that he has created in an otherwise small theater, he grins from ear to ear, signals delight through spirit fingers, looks wide-eyed at his new surroundings — and doesn’t say a word.
Quijada, 41, has spent the past decade creating and pitching his silent musical, The Dream King, which runs through June 18. The musical, which he stars in, promises to be one of the more unique pieces of theater on Chicago stages this summer.
And if you’re scratching your head, wondering “What’s a silent musical?” then he’s at least got you curious.
Like Keaton and Chaplin-era silent movies, The Dream King gets rid of talking and relies on music, props, title cards, slapstick comedy and over the top expression to convey its message. “With The Dream King, for me, removing the words just made it different,” Quijada said. “I like different. I think different is interesting.”
Staged by the Latino theater company Teatro Vista, the musical revolves around a man named Sam, who falls for a woman who only exists in his dreams. The idea came to Quijada while watching the 2001 film Waking Life directed by Richard Linklater. In the movie, a character has profound conversations when sleeping. “I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s so interesting,’ ” Quijada said. “And then the question that occurred to me was what if you fell in love in your dreams? Which sounds tragic and incredible.”
Quijada was born in Highland Park and got his start in theater at Columbia College. His friends were auditioning for a silent play, so he decided to join in. Immediately, he felt connected using his body and music to express a message and emotion. “I’m just a better writer with my body, very similar to how a dancer choreographs to music,” he said. So began a theater career in miming and clowning — albeit not necessarily in the traditional sense. “I don’t have a red nose. I don’t do clown makeup,” he said. “I did it in the past, and I started breaking out.”
Sandra Marquez, an early collaborator who co-directed the musical, recalls Quijada’s first pitch to her. “He came over to my apartment and set up his boombox and played all the parts,” she said. “It was seamless. I gave him a standing ovation at the end of the one-hour pitch.”
The Dream King isn’t afraid to get weird. Whenever Quijada’s character Sam falls asleep, he awakens from the droll and routine real world into an imaginative dreamscape — not so unlike Dorothy taking her first steps into technicolor Oz. Sam’s dreams are fantastical. They’re filled with sea creatures toting salami sandwiches, a whisky swigging moon man sporting gym shoes with wheels, flowers that bloom feet and faceless monsters.
“He is one of Chicago’s biggest talents in theater,” said co-director Alice da Cunha, who got involved with the project through a workshop for The Dream King in 2018. “It’s always astonishing to see his endless inventiveness — the rigor and the professionalism.”
Silent theater is not a typical genre. But it is a genre that plays into the stage’s greatest strengths — physicality, playfulness and imagination. Still, at times, getting it to stage took convincing. “People had a hard time going, ‘Wait what? How does this work?’ ” Marquez said. “But I was just determined that we were going to do this.”
Then the pandemic hit. Quijada had to wait and start the process of building a show as COVID closed theaters and halted productions. The delay ultimately gave the creator extra time to workshop and reflect on his story. Although it is fantastical and funny, The Dream King draws inspiration from difficult personal subjects, including alcoholism.
“Booze and the notion of just trying to escape real world problems with alcohol, that element definitely elevated during and after the pandemic,” he said. “It’s a scary beast. And to me, the drinking is about self-reflection, self-discovery, gaining confidence within yourself and battling your own demons.”
Lately, a lot of Latino theater has focused on immigration and other topical political issues. While these narratives are important, da Cunha believes more types of out-of-the box stories from Latino artists like The Dream King should be explored and funded. “I didn’t grow up in the U.S.,” she said. “For me, Latinx is everything … I grew up in two countries where I was the majority. I don’t see that limitation.”
What’s more, the fact that The Dream King doesn’t rely on words makes it universal. The limited dialogue in the show appears on title cards that are translated in English, Spanish and Polish — the three most spoken languages in Chicago.
Quijada’s parents immigrated to the United States from El Salvador before he was born, so English is not their native language. “I’ve been in Shakespeare plays. And my dad is like, ‘The costumes were amazing,’ ” he explained. “A lot of times, they don’t really understand it. Sometimes people that speak English don’t even understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.”
Silent theater eliminates this barrier. “It’s like a universal language: physicality, dance. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Music is music. Movement is movement. And movement and music can be interpretive. So whatever you come and get out of it, that’s incredible.”
If you go: Teatro Vista’s The Dream King runs through June 18 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets are $45 and $20 for students with ID.
Julia Binswanger is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and audio producer. Follow her @juliabinswanger.