Uncut Pages, an all-woman troupe stages Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 320-year-old play, which was written with only one female character. This is not necessarily a barrier to a successful enterprise. After all, Shakespeare’s plays originally featured young men in the women’s parts, so why shouldn’t turnabout be effective play? The Uncut Pages production also features several actors in multiple roles. Notwithstanding the play’s complexity, this also works well, thanks in large part to the distinctive and beautiful costumes, courtesy of Rachel Hochberg.
Why is the production such a snooze, then? One reason may be the unfortunate selection of Stanley Applebaum’s somber translation, instead of the livelier adaptation by John Barton and Adrian Mitchell which Journeymen Theatre used earlier this year. (Read Rosalind Lacy’s review of that production, here.) But the more significant reason may well be the acting, which, while beautifully clear, lacks (with the significant exception of Becky Fullan as Segismundo) passion, distinctiveness and insight.
The bones of the story line are familiar to anyone who saw, or read about, the Journeymen play. Polish King Basilio (Eleanor Craig), having concluded from his reading of star charts (and perhaps from the fact that his wife died in childbirth) that his newborn son Segismundo would be a man of violence and a tyrant, immediately banishes Segismundo to a tower in the woods, where he is watched by the King’s old friend Clotaldo (Hochberg). He tells the public that the child is dead. As the years pass and the King is without issue, his niece Estrella (Hochberg) and nephew Astolfo (Charlotte Rahn-Lee) contend for the throne, a contest Astolfo seeks to resolve with a cousinly marriage. This enrages Astolfo’s fiancée Rosaura (Craig), who, disguised as a man, haunts the woods for the man who betrayed her when she comes upon – Segismundo’s tower.
In the meantime, the old King decides to give Segismundo a chance before turning his throne over to Astolfo and Estrella, who in fact live out of the country. He covers his bases by arranging to have Segismundo drugged and returned to the country, where he will be told that his adventure in the capital was just a dream, if he behaves badly. Segismundo, installed in power, proves just as wicked as the stars said he would be, and Basilio soon has him out and back into the woods. But word of Segismundo reaches the peasantry, and they rise up to release him from his prison. At this point, Segismundo has concluded that not only his adventure in power but his whole life has been a dream. In this spirit, he rides at the head of the rebel army, but in triumph he is generous and sensible, rather than mean-spirited and tyrannical. It is, after all, only a dream.
This is a very large and grand story, and the tiny Long View Gallery is probably not the best venue for it. But even in a bigger place this production would not serve the play very well. With the exception of Fullan, the actors do more declaiming than acting. In particular, we need to see Basilio’s calculation and desperation, but Craig makes him as bland as a Congressional Committee Chair with the television cameras off. Late in the play the troupe makes the disastrous decision to use balls of wrapping paper to represent rocks hurled by the enraged peasantry; thereafter the actors constantly stumble into the rocks, knocking them with astounding vigor to the other side of the stage.
Uncut Pages is composed of alumnae of the Bryn Mawr theater department, and the troupe seems decisive and assured. Life Is A Dream appears more than it can bite off, though, particularly in such a constrained venue.
Running time: 120 minutes with one intermission
Tickets: Life Is a Dream
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