(L to R) Tristan Cunningham, Sean San José, Sarah Nina Hayon, and Adrian N. Roberts in California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream, directed by Loretta Greco; photo by Kevin Berne.
Fate and plot contrivances often seem interchangeable in Nilo Cruz’s translation of Life is a Dream. But this 17th century philosophical low comedy still proves relevant today in Loretta Greco’s new production at CalShakes. When the disgraced foreigner Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), dressed in men’s garments, accidentally stumbles into the forbidden and secluded prison where the prince, Segismundo (Sean San José), has been held since birth, is it fate or absurd coincidence that the prison’s overseer, Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas), is the one man she was told would give her shelter in this land? When she surrenders her sword to him, recounting the story her mother told her about how it would help her find friendship abroad, the recognition in his eyes is hilarious. How convenient is it that she’d find him so quickly and that she’d have the perfect key to get her out of this mess? Is it any more surprising that the man who is the biggest threat to the throne, Astolfo (Amir Abdullah), is also the man that Rosaura has travelled so far to wreak vengeance on?
The absurdity of these contrivances keeps the play hovering in a state of unreality, somewhat like a dream. On Andrew Boyce’s set, royalty tend to float across the stage, as if in flight. They tend to enter upstage left on the elevated ramp, which is illuminated by white bands of LED lights on its edges and support beams. This sets the tone for a play that will involve an imprisoned prince, cousins considering marriage so they needn’t compete for the throne, people whose loyalty is torn between those they should help and those that helped them, and a large enough supply of opiates to persuade anyone into a dream state, confused about what is real and what’s not.
On a whim, the King Basilio (Adrian Roberts) decides to give his son, Segismundo, whom he’s never met, a chance to prove he’s a civilized man capable of ruling the country. A prophecy at the time of Segismundo’s birth foretold that he would be a wild creature, a beast, inclined to do terrible things. So Basilio had Segismundo imprisoned as a precaution. Of course, we’re meant to completely ignore the fact that Segismundo’s been treated so abominably throughout his life that he may have been hardened against compassion, for it had never been shown to him. Afraid that his son won’t be up to the task, Basilio has him drugged before being brought to the palace for a trial period: should it go awry, they would be able to easily convince Segismundo that the time he thinks he spent as a wealthy monarch was nothing but a dream.
As coincidence and birth right bring our leads together, it doesn’t take much to guess where it’s all headed. Although Life is a Dream is the most studied of plays by 17th-century Spanish Littplaywright Pedro Calderón de la Barca, it’s about as subtle as an ox. If you were to play a drinking game — and alcohol is permitted inside the Bruns — to drink at every utterance of “Life is a dream!” or “Am I dreaming?” during this brief play, you’d be drunk well before the major battle scenes commenced and about as confused about reality as the characters in the play. And yet between the seemingly floating ramp, the sleeping characters, and the surreal situations, we often find ourselves as perplexed as the characters about what is reality. Isn’t royal blood as arbitrary as an enchanting dream? How much of our lives are the product of our constructed narratives, only real because we dreamed them into existence?
The philosophical dialogue may be a bit blunt, but there’s humour, if simple and silly, along the way. Rosauro and her servant Clarin (Jomar Tagatac) take polar opposite approaches to dealing with authority, usually for comedic effect. Where Rosauro is deferent, respectful, and cautious, Clarin is snarky in his obedience. When forced to give up their weapons at the prison, Rosauro bestows hers upon the man of highest rank, for she believes him worthy of its safekeeping. Clarin willingly gives his up, but not without a slight jab at the guards and Rosauro: “Mine is less demanding so I’ll give it to one of the guards.” Though little more than a plot device, Clarin serves as the play’s fool, lightening what could otherwise be a rather dark mood.
Although de la Barca and Shakespeare were contemporaries, they never saw nor knew about each other’s work. Where de la Barca seems to have deliberately dumbed down his play for the masses, Shakespeare would have found a more elegant telling, with more nuanced jokes that could play to the upper and lower classes. Certainly, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream address similar themes as this play with more more wit and subtlety.
Director Greco fully compensates for the play’s shortcomings with her terrific cast. Hayon and Lopez-Morillas are particular standouts, able to play comedy, angst, and affection with equal seriousness and believability. They even make their soliloquies seem like new revelations even as they recount predictable or even absurd plot points. They’re thoroughly real. San José is probably given the toughest material to work with, forced to repeat “Life is a dream” again and again, imbuing each with a sense of novelty. The words may grow tiresome, but he’s utterly convincing as someone who still can’t believe he’s discovered one of life’s greatest secrets.
“Life is a Dream” runs until August 2 on Tuesday–Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday–Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 4 p.m. There is one Saturday matinee on August 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $74. Discounted student and senior rush tickets, 30 and under tickets, military tickets, and a daily allotment of $20 tickets are available. More information can be found here.
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