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A CurtainUp Review


John Ortiz
John Ortiz
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Pedro Calderón de la Barca has been tagged Spain's Shakespeare, but unlike the Bard, his name is hardly a household word. Even his masterpiece, Life's a Dream, is rarely produced, and until he was asked to adapt the 17th century verse play for the Hartford stage, playwright José Rivera (best known for Marisol) had never read it.

In his writer's notes to his adaptation, now called Sueño and enjoying a limited run at the Manhattan Class Company, Rivera explains that he "chipped away at the many translations." Undoubtedly one of these was the adaptation by John Barton and Adrian Mitchell used for the production I saw two summers ago at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. The "chipping away" process led Rivera through what he describes as "a truly Oedipal desire to kill the old bastard {Calderón}" and with him "his unwieldy subplot, and his obstinate championing of the status quo." However, since initial irritation gave way to awe and Calderon à la Rivera retains all of the original plot and characters, I refer you to my review of the Berkshire production for details -- go here

In Sueño the morality tale that crosses the story of Rip Van Winkle with The Lady and the Tiger has been moved from a mythical Polish kingdom to the Spanish Court of Calderón 's own time. This gives the big themes underlying the plot and sub-plot an added resonance since these characters pondering questions of honor, justice and life's very existence live in a country rife with repression at home and abroad. To sharpen the Spanish flavor, director Lisa Peterson has guitarist-composer Aaron Gilmartin accompany the action with strains of flamenco music, never leaving the chair placed unobtrusively at the side of the stage. In addition, there are occasional bits of flamenco dancing and castanet rattling by members of the cast. A nice atmospheric touch!

Mr. Rivera has taken the Barton and Mitchell adaptation to a higher level of campiness and at the same time descends into greater darkness. Ms. Peterson has skillfully blended the elements of old and new into a mesmerizing brew which is at times reminiscent of the witch scenes in Macbeth. At the heart of the darkness is the central character, the son banished to a bestial existence by the astrology guided father. John Ortiz is absolutely riveting as the tortured and passionate Segismundo. After an eerie opening in which a bloody monster baby whose birth has killed his mother is thrust before a horrified King Basilio (Geno Silva), that monster as an adult pops out of a trapdoor, a ghastly and manacled Jack In the Box -- his face and body powdered a ghostly white, his eyes red-rimmed and his putty-colored hair matted. His transformation into the rightful prince who has not yet shed his bestial habits is equally powerful. The downside to this passionate performance is a virtual shower of sweat and spittle that can be somewhat disconcerting if you're sitting in the front row. Mr. Ortiz is also saddled with excessive speechifying in an otherwise admirably reigned in script.

The rest of the sizeable cast (12 counting the actors playing soldiers, guards, servants and rebels) has also been well-chosen. Geno Silva and Yusef Bulos manage to convey the two sides of their nature -- the former as the king torn between the dictates of the stars and his guilt about the fate he has decreed for his son; the latter as Clotaldo, the king's loyal servant and Segismundo's jailer and tutor. Michi Barall gives the cross-dressing Rosaura a contemporary feistiness.

The broad-humored wackiness is left to Segismundo's cousins -- the sexy and ambitious Estrella (Rebecca Wisocky) and Astrolfo the Prince of Poland (James Urbaniak) -- and Rosaura's clownish and cowardly companion, Clarin (David Greenspan). Anyone who has seen Greenspan will recognize some of the grimaces and shtik of which he's a master. He is a hilarious cowering bug on the wall when Rosaura is captured and with his high-pitched voice delivers some of the slangiest, ultra-timely new dialogue with perfect aplomb.

Mr. Rivera's attempt to capture both classical and contemporary resonances with the laugh-in humor and language of Wisocky, Urbaniak and Greenspan, comes at the price of shaking us out of the dreamlike quality of the play. Estrella's calling Astrolfo "a shitty boy friend" . . . Clarin, imprisoned in one of the trap doors when the rebels and king's men start fighting ( and yelling "stop the fighting you assholes. Let me out of here, away from all this machismo" . . . it's funny but it takes modernizing an old text somewhat jarringly over the edge. Having that battle fought with chairs instead of swords is also a less than successful touch in an otherwise imaginative and attention holding production.

Ricardo Henandez has created the dark atmosphere of the prison and the court with stark simplicity. There are no furnishings, except for a ladder, a globe protruding from the blood red walls, the several trapdoors and the guitarist's chair -- all lit with appropriate gloominess by Christopher Akerlind.

In closing, another caveat for those sitting in the front row, or on the aisle: Keep your feet and belongings tucked under your seat, as there are several occasions when some of the actors leap on and off the stage. It's all part and parcel of a dynamic, highly theatrical experience.

By José Rivera
Based on Pedro Calderón's Life Is a Dream.
Directed by Lisa Peterson

CAST (in order of appearance): Geno Silva, Yusef Bulos, Ken Parker, Michi Barall, David Greenspan, John Ortiz, James Urbaniak, Rebecca Wisocky, Sam Wellington, Lorenzo Gregorio, Ken Parker, Jeremy J. H. Seymour,
Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Sound Design: Fabian Obispo
Composer/Guitarist: Aaron Gilmartin
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running time: 2 hours plus two 10-minute intermissions
MCC, 120 W. 28th Str. (6th/7th Aves) 727-7765
2/22/2000-3/19/2000; opening 3/01/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/27 performance
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