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Dreaming of a Better World: A Review of LIFE IS A DREAM at CalShakes

July 12, 2015 § Leave a Comment

Attending the live theatre can be fun, intriguing, informative, provocative, entertaining, educational… but what keeps me coming back show after show is that every once in a while everything aligns and a night in the theatre is just magical. Such is the case with CalShakes’ beautiful, lyrical production of Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream directed by the brilliant Loretta Greco.

(Above) Carlos Berrera and Kaiso Hill; (below) Sean San José as Prince Segismundo in California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream, directed by Loretta Greco; photo by Kevin Berne.

(Above) Carlos Berrera and Kaiso Hill; (below) Sean San José as Prince Segismundo in California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream, directed by Loretta Greco; all photos by Kevin Berne.

Anything but Dry

Finding the heart of this Siglo de Oro (Spanish Golden Age) masterpiece is not easy. Usually called a “philosophical drama,” it is, on the rare occasions when is performed, often cold and mechanical. The opposite was the case here. Pulitzer-prize winner Nilo Cruz’ (Anna in the Tropics) translation and adaptation was a key to capturing the shimmering other worldliness – that quality that was later to be called “magic realism” – that permeates the original, but seems so elusive in English.

(That the drama of the Spanish renaissance is so shamefully neglected on the stages of Shakespeare festivals – despite the fact that here on the West Coast a plurality of the population is of Hispanic heritage – especially when French farce is such a staple, is a rant for another day. For now, let me just honor Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone’s opening night statement that it is exceptionally difficult to find the right artist to “unlock” these plays. Greco is absolutely the right artist!)

A Son Betrayed

La vida es sueño tells the story of a crown prince, Segismundo, imprisoned and isolated from birth because ill-omens suggested he would become a oppressive tyrant and overthrow his father, who is drugged and brought to court for one day as a test before one of his cousins is named heir in his place. It is a test that he fails miserably, having known nothing but a brutish, caged existence. The tiny bit of education and philosophy given him by his sole caretaker, a nobleman named Clotaldo, cannot steer him through his first encounters with luxury, power, and especially with the lust he feels when he encounters women for the first time. After a disastrous day, he is again drugged and returned to his cell, where he is led to believe that it was all nothing but a dream. Clotaldo suggests that what he can learn from his “dream” is that it is important to strive for goodness and mercy at all times, even where it seems one has no control.

Segismundo’s existence having become known, however, sets off a civil war and he is freed by his people who refuse to accept the rule of the foreign-born cousins. Now unable to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary so reliant only on pure principle, Segismundo successfully leads the rebellion and conquers the father that has so painfully betrayed and abandoned him, leading to a stunning final encounter.

Otherworldly Beauty

The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream

The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream

Cruz’ translation and Greco’s production set this story indefinitely in both time and space. Andrew Boyce’s graceful set is a single platform that spirals into the sky above a plain metal box that serves as a cell. Guns and steel suggest the time is not “then,” while capes and swords suggest that it is also not “now.” No geographical references occur at all. Alex Jaeger’s vaguely period costumes and the crystalline illumination by Tony-award winning light designer Christopher Akerlind create a world that is both accessible and ephemeral.

Greco does not make any contemporary references explicit, but the inescapable parallels to repressive regimes, betrayed generations and the seeming unreality of much of modern life float forward anyway. A light touch has a huge impact.

Stunning Cast

Segismundo is usually played by a Hamlet-like tragic hunk, but the revelation of the night was the extraordinary central performance by the man-child Sean San Jose. His simple awe at everything he encountered coupled with his quick, deep connection to his emotions made his transcendent performance moving beyond description.

Sean San José as Prince Segismundo in California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream

Sean San José as Prince Segismundo in California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream

The moral center of the play is Clotaldo, caught between loyalty to his king and his duty as caretaker to Segismundo. Julian López-Morillas, an artist with long and deep ties to this community, brought to the role the same intensity and humanity that illuminated his revelatory performance as Geronimo in Marin Shakespeare’s The Spanish Tragedy two seasons ago.

Performances of the play usually fall apart around the tangential sub-plot about a young woman seduced and spurned by Segismundo’s cousin, Astolfo. Never having known her father, and unable to find any champion, she sets off in male disguise and with a comic side-kick to seek revenge, where she encounters Segismundo in his prison and eventually finds her real father and her destiny. Even bravura performances often fail to make the role rise above the improbability and coincidence.

In the hands of Sarah Nina Haydon, however, this Rosaura becomes something else. She finds her own suffering parallel to Segismundo’s, not least because of the way that it keeps intensifying through circumstances that she experiences as surreal. Her life is as nightmarishly dreamlike as is the protagonist’s, and as revealed by the delicate handling of her performance under Greco’s direction, as ours.

Julian López-Morillas as Clotaldo and Sarah Nina Hayon as Rosaura

Julian López-Morillas as Clotaldo and Sarah Nina Hayon as Rosaura

The cast is uniformly superb. Amir Abdullah is charismatic as the complex cousin Astolfo. Company favorite Tristan Cunningham has never been better utilized than she is as the radiant competing cousin Estrella. Adrian Roberts is a commanding presence as the conflicted king. Jomar Tagatac is by turns hilarious and then devastating as Rosaura’s pragmatic side-kick. Even the unnamed parts were fulfilled brilliantly by Carlos Barrera, Kaiso Hill and, especially, a compelling Jason Kapoor – whose reappearance in multiple roles rose above utilitarian and became yet another element that made the production feel dreamlike.

Another Dream Play

When the play finally reaches its climax, with the conquering Segismundo facing down his self-serving father, honest but inadequate tutor, love-interest who is in love with somebody else, and scheming cousins, the adaptation by Nilo Cruz takes an unexpected turn away from the predictably mundane resolution of the plot and leaps into the poetic heights reminiscent of Shakespeare’s dream play, Midsummer. It is a gasp-inducing conclusion that feels perfectly suited to the cultural moment. Theatre does not get better than this.


Life is a Dream

Playing through August 8, 2015

California Shakespeare Theatre


July 11, 2015

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