Life is a Dream
nytheatre.com review by Jesica Avellone
June 8, 2007
As the author of an estimated 300 plays, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) would raise eyebrows in any age. His masterpiece, La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream), is a passionate fairy tale that shies from neither theatrical delight nor political commentary. Written in Spain in 1626, when a generation that had experienced a Golden Age of expansion and exploration was in decline, Calderón's play wrestles with the questions of nature vs. nurture, gender identity, the divine right of kings, and love—love especially, in all its untidy forms. For their current production, Flux Theatre Ensemble has taken enthusiastic care to share their discoveries of Life is a Dream's 380-year history with their audience, first through a series of readings and now in a fully produced revival. This production, the culmination of those efforts, is emotionally and intellectually engaging but unfortunately lacks directorial vision.
Life is a Dream is primarily the story of Segismundo, a prince whose astrologically dependent father has imprisoned him in a tower at his birth because it was prophesied that he would grow up to be a cruel and tyrannical king. Segismundo never learns his true identity until he is given a sleeping potion and brought to the palace to test the stars' portents. A parallel journey follows Segismundo's: Rosaura has come to Spain from Warsaw, disguised as a man and with the clown Clarín in tow, seeking revenge against the man who stained her honor.
The members of Flux are to be commended for taking their audience along for a dramaturgical ride. Their reading series leading up to this full production of Life is a Dream explored various translations and adaptations, utilizing a host of actors and allowing many company members to deepen their understanding of the play by taking the helm as directors. I attended their reading of Sueño, José Rivera's 1998 adaptation directed by Heather Cohn (who serves as dramaturg for this production), and the atmosphere was festive and joyful. The actors and director pulled out as many stops as a reading will allow, embracing both Rivera's poetry and the more fantastical aspects of the play with aplomb. On June 19, Flux is presenting a reading of La Vida es Sueño in the original Spanish, a fitting conclusion to a thoroughly researched project.
The same care and precision that went into Flux's preparation for Life is a Dream are evident on stage in the full production. In keeping with the play's many commedia dell'arte-influenced elements, director Kelly O'Donnell smartly uses the intimate Michael Weller space to directly engage the audience as the characters' confidants. Set designer Jason Paradine has erected sliding wall panels and stage-width stairs to effectively create levels and hiding places while leaving the performers ample space to struggle and swoon.
The cast is a particularly earnest one, and I would be remiss to not make special mention of Christina Shipp's zealous and impetuous Rosaura. She drives the play forward, lighting a fire under a character that could be dismissed as single-minded and melodramatic. The company as a whole is clever—they ably guide the audience through Calderón's web of relations and intrigue, relishing each moment of anguish or foppery. This is especially fortunate as O'Donnell can't seem to decide what her comment on the play is, committing instead to a cornucopia of interpretations that would all be valid and innovative were they not so distilled. The eleventh hour feminist take doesn't mesh with the stock characters, and the vibrant mythology is muddled by the occasional contemporary anachronism. Still, Flux Theatre Ensemble is a smart company, unafraid of challenging material, and they make a point of engaging their audience at every turn. I left the theatre excited to see what they offer up next.