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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Life's A Dream
By Elyse Sommer
Pedro Calderón de la Barca has been called the Spanish Shakespeare by some, yet his name evokes puzzled looks even from the most seasoned theater goers. Of his hundreds of plays even his masterpiece, Life's A Dream, (written when the playwright was in his thirties, c. 1616) has never attained the familiarity of even the lesser of Shakespeare's works. Perhaps the very accessible adaptation by John Barton and Adrian Mitchell used in this strikingly innovative and enjoyable production that just opened at the Unicorn Theatre, will trigger a renaissance of interest in at least this Calderon work.
To begin with an attempt to summarize what Life's A Dream is about --
The play unfolds in a mythical kingdom called Poland. The action hinges on the familiar theme of succession to dynastically held power. Basilio, (Richard Ruiz) the king in command of the realm, is unfortunately guided by the superstitious belief in the "science" of astronomy. When the birth of his son Sigismund (Tom Story) is accompanied by omens that he will grow up to be a tyrant, the king decides to keep his birth a secret and incarcerates him in a cave, untutored and unaware of his heritage. But Basilio is not quite as sinister as he's made up to look. In an attempt at reason, he decides to test the notion of man's free will by bringing Sigismund out of his beast like existence and investing him with the power he was born to wield. In short, as in the tale of "The Lady Or the Tiger," Sigismund's fate hangs on a test: If his conduct is "kingly", (meaning kind and wise), he rules; if not, he will be returned to his shackled existence, this time a proven monster. There is also a subplot which mirrors the father-son dilemma and centers on a combination maiden in distress/ woman warrior named Rosaura (Gin Hammond). Typical of Renaissance comedies, it is peppered with coincidences and stock devices such as a sword and a picture in a locket .
Clearly Life's A Dream demands that you look beyond the confines of a plot outline for a sense of the satisfactions that await you. Suffice it to say that it's part fairy tale, part philosophical morality tale that challenges you to question your own views of honor and reality. As importantly, the current format delivers an all-absorbing theatrical experience. If you give yourself over to the fun -- and despite the theorizing about free will and life as a stage, this is a comedy -- you're in for a rare treat.
As in last year's standout of the Berkshire season, Quills , (also at the Unicorn --and linked at the end), the director has taken full advantage of the theater's architecture to put audience members smack inside the play -- participants as much as viewers (you might want to click the link at the end to our comments on Fourth Wall Crumbling, in our sum up of the 1997-98 New York season). The acting school graduates who people the cast are once again not just good, but remarkably so. Their line delivery, their versatility of movement, their grasp of the play's comedic and serious elements make one rejoice for the future of the acting profession.
Gin Hammond's Rosaura is a typical Renaissance woman concerned with matters of honor; yet her "confused woman" also conveys a thoroughly modern sensibility. Rob Grader as Clarion the foolish servant is a wonder of physicality, a Renaissance Bill Irwin bouncing up and down the aisles and popping up in the boxes at the top of the steps at either side of the stage.
Tom Story, his cropped yellow hair straight out of an East Village unisex hair salon, is mesmerizing as the man-beast. Your heart clenches as he ends his agonized lament for his liberty with "What law, justice or reason can decree that man alone should never know the joys and be alone excepted from the rights God grants a fish, a bird, a beast, a brook? " Equally praiseworthy are Michael Dowling as the prince's keeper Clotaldo; Matthew Montelongo and Brooke Peterson as cousins and contenders for the throne and Richard Ruiz as the king who can't see that his treatment of his son, and not the stars, have corrupted his son's civilized instincts.
To intensify the modern tone that relevantly ties what may sound like a mechanical comedy to our current lives, set designer Kenichi Toki, reprises the inventiveness that contributed to the success of last year's Wilder, Wilder. . . , (also directed by Eric Hill and linked at the end). The moveable mirrored panels work beautifully to underscore the integration of dialogue, movement and design that distinguishes this production. Also adding to this overall integration of language and visual artistry, are Yoshinori Tanokura's costumes, Matthew E. Adelson's lighting and director Hill's evocative sound design (a new to us kind of theatrical double tasking).
All connected with this unique production deserve our thanks for introducing us, (or re-introducing, as the case may be), to this neglected playwright. His paradoxical foray into dreams vs. reality is thoroughly entertaining while the play lasts. It will leave you wondering and discussing the questions he poses:
What is this life?