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Review: SUEÑO performed by the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program

October 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment

During the early part of the 17th Century, while Shakespeare and his contemporaries were active in London, an equally vital theatrical period, the Siglo del Oro, filled the stages of Spain. Despite the sweep and power of the plays, they are criminally neglected in the contemporary repertoire. It is difficult to find an opportunity to see one.

If you are anywhere near the San Francisco area don’t miss the chance, therefore, to see the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts program’s production of Sueño, translated and adapted by José Rivera from the great Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream.) You will quickly see what all the fuss is about.


Calderón’s philosophical drama tells the story of a crown prince, Segismundo, secretly imprisoned in isolation from birth because of the prophecy that he would bring disaster to his country. When his remorseful father decides Segismundo should be given a single day to prove the prophecy wrong, he is drugged and brought to the palace. The twenty-five-year-old Segismundo awakes to find himself a king. He reacts with violent anger about the lifetime of deprivation and humiliation he has unjustly suffered, and he loses control. After injuring a palace servant and attempting to rape the first woman he has ever seen, he is again drugged and returned to his prison where he is told it was all a dream.

His people now realize his plight, however, and a rebel army storms his prison and releases him. Segismundo is unsure whether this is a dream or reality, but he resolves to act as if every fortunate occurrence in experience might be a dream gift from which he might awaken (and lose) at any moment. The rebellion secures his throne and he becomes a benevolent ruler – or maybe just has a very good dream…

Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera’s (The Motorcycle Diaries, Marisol) adaptation sharpens the plot slightly, and brings a contemporary wit and sensibility to the dialogue.

As befits a training exercise, the production values at A.C.T. are minimal and many of the actors are being pushed to the limits of their current abilities. What a great choice this is for actor training, however, as the Shakespearean scope brings out their best. The philosophic complexity which questions notions of privilege, and allegorically explores the possibility that God does not exist, makes them learn to structure rhetorical arguments in intellectually and emotionally communicative ways.

And that they do! In particular, Ryan Williams French is a moving Segismundo and Philip Estrera as the old counselor, Clotaldo, who teaches the prince humanism is outstanding. Dominique Salerno brings enormous joy and humor to her cross-gendered performance as the clownish old servant, Clarin.

This production is surprisingly concrete, lacking some of the dreamy vibe for which Rivera is especially known. (If you ever get the chance, catch his References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot for the best example.) The trade-off is that Director Domenique Lozano focuses her production around the very timely question of what constitutes honor, and honorable behavior. Perhaps that is especially appropriate. As I write, we are entering week three of a most dishonorable shutdown of the Federal Government, which certainly feels less like a bad dream than a very solid reality. For anyone who loves classical drama, this is an opportunity that must not be missed.

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