- Life’s a Dream
by Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Adapted by John Barton and Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Alexander Strain
Produced by Journeymen Theater Ensemble at Church Street Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
When it comes to performing world masterpieces, better done than shunned. So bravo to Journeymen Theater Ensemble for dusting off this rarely produced 17th century play.
The adaptation by Mitchell and Barton, both from the Royal Shakespeare Company, is a refreshing, freely translated interpretation of what is generally a convoluted text from the Golden Age of Spanish Theater, albeit filled with philosophical monologues such as the famous “.. all life, it seems, Is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.” – in world lit courses, as familiar a speech as Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to be” soliloquy.
There’s a painfully real concern about Spanish succession that drives this play. Under the rule of Philip IV, this was a time of absolute faith. Calderon wanted his poetic dialogue to uplift belief into the realm of choices between predestination and free will. This production, under the direction of Alexander Strain, is played for a laugh a minute; risking the loss of the poetic language. For some that may be okay, but that’s not what Calderon intended.
The playwright posed the question: How does a royal father raise a son to be compassionate, fair and kind? In this tale, a king locks his son Sigismund up in a tower from birth. When the royal heir, played by Eric Messner, is drugged and brought to the palace to rule for a day, he acts like a monstrously cruel tyrant. So the son is told his day at court has been a dream and sent back to the prison until he proves fit to be a prince.
Sigismund’s character development toward reformation comes across as abrupt, maybe a flaw in the script. But Messner is warmly convincing in his redemption at the end. The moral is clear: The humble shall be exalted. Christian humanism can convert a beast into a new man. Sigismund forgives all, even himself, it seems, and by force of his free will, overcomes the stars by defying fate, conquering himself and forgiving his father for not seeing that isolation, not the stars, have warped Sigismund’s civilized behavior.
Actor Jim Jorgensen’s finely honed performance as Basilio, the father, embodies the ideal of the Buddhist-Hindu ruler from the Barlaam and Josaphat myth, supposedly one of Calderon’s sources. Jorgensen allows Basilio to develop from an addled monarch in the beginning, into a kinder, wiser man, who finds self-control before controlling his kingdom and his son.
Some cape and sword vengeance intrigue usurps the main plot for awhile. Maggie Glauber as Rosaura succeeds in arousing fear in the second act, when she enters slashing the air with a sword and crying out: “My name is Death.” Her intentions are clear: Rosaura is angry enough to kill for her fallen honor. Allegorical stereotypes called Thought, Idolatry and Death are plentiful in Calderon’s liturgical miracle plays, as in Belshazzar’s Feast, for example. But the Spanish Golden Age was an age of transition. And both Glauber as Rosaura and Lindsay Haynes as Estrella do a good job of convincing us they are fiercely passionate, surprisingly modern, independent women and survivors.
To fully grasp the relationship between Clotaldo, the king’s secret security guard, played by Brian Crane, and Rosaura, we have to accept the premise that Rosaura dresses as a young man to pursue her honor killing quest of Astolfo. (A program plot summary would help.) In this kingdom, daughters are killed by their fathers for loss of their purity after rape, straying, or supposedly committing adultery. Basilio has promised Astolfo, played by Theo Hadjimichael, the throne if Sigismund fails his test as a Christian prince. So, Astolfo, hungry for royal power, walks out on his marital promise to Rosaura. Untangle that long string of coincidence, worthy of an opera plot, and you’ve got the rest of the story that ties all knots at the end.
Some moments of gallows humor are played just right, as when Rex Daugherty, as Clarion, claims he is a drinking man mistaken for a prince but ends up a “bloody clown.” Struck by a random arrow, he observes bitterly that the heat of a battle field is better than hiding behind a pillar. He slumps center stage and laments, “Strange it seems like I’m waking up.” Thus, the serious message about hiding a prince away in a tower is paralleled with comic, if not grotesque, irony.
That Calderon originally wrote an ingeniously constructed play saves this production, though too much underscoring and hitting of lines for laughs can upset its delicate balance. When Sigismund throws a servant out the window into a lake, the servant runs pursued down the center aisle through the audience, climaxed by a splash sound effect. It feels like what happens in a cartoon. I fully expected the servant to bounce back in one piece. Some pity and terror is needed to make that moment of horror believable.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is perhaps a close analogy to Life’s a Dream. It’s a play that ends happily but with tragic-comic elements. Journeymen’s Life’s a Dream is entertaining. And Philip IV’s court, steeped in intrigue and corruption, probably would have gone along with the escape into laughter. But the courtiers would have listened for and taken seriously the poetic passages, too. Life was brutal and brutish and needed uplift. Supposedly non-Christian Muslims had been converted or snuffed out by the Spanish Inquisition. Philip IV spent profligately on wars against everyone, from Moorish pirates, to regional separatists like the Catalonians; perhaps the reason Life’s a Dream is set in an exotic place-Poland, a neutral territory. And that leads us into consideration of the brilliant stage design by Tobias Harding.
Harding’s set consists of diagonally leaning, broken, pinkish-orange-striped arches, putting us in the famous cathedral in Cordoba, Spain that rises in the middle of a horizontal building of Moorish pillars. The set represents that exquisite amalgamation of two cultures; a place for Christian worship that built upon, rather than destroyed the Muslim house of prayer that preceded it. A great choice to remind us that playwrights and intellectuals of the Baroque period were trying to change thought through reasonable discourse rather than through the threat of Inquisitional torture.
Director Strain, most recently seen in a stunning portrayal of the title role in Caligula at Washington Shakespeare Company, is best known as one of the area’s most promising actors. As a budding director, he creates tableaux that are like Renaissance paintings, framed by the set’s pillars and diagonal staircase. But his actors need to pull back a bit from their energetic deliveries to let us hear more of the text’s lofty lyricism.
The added musical bridges and transitions, composed by Jesse Terrill, are magically haunting. Seventeenth century costuming by Yvette M. Ryan is supportive.
Journeymen Theater’s staging of Life’s a Dream is an entertaining spoof that you just might want to see.
Running time: 1:45.
When: Until Feb 2. Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. (always Pay-What-You-Can); Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m
Where: Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street, N.W., Washington D.C. 20036 (Dupont Circle Metro).
Tickets: $20. Senior, student and group discounts, $15. 1-800-494-TIXS.
Info: 202-669-7229. Or go to the website.
- – During the run of Life’s a Dream, non-perishable food items and canned goods will be collected at the Church Street Theater as part of a “healthy food drive,” to benefit Bread for the City and Capital Area Food Bank in Washington D.C. Any patron who brings a donation to the theater will receive a $2.00 discount off a regular priced ticket at any performance.