‘Life is a Dream’ (‘La Vida Es Sueno’) at Shakespeare Theatre Company and Spain Arts and Culture

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I’ll admit it – I came for the tapas.

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to review performances that feature culinary elements: last week it was Last Call by Nameless, which, as part of their Happy Hour Theatre series, was staged in an Adams Morgan bar and restaurant. And this week it was Pedro Calederon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, a staged reading mounted through a partnership between Shakespeare Theatre Company and Spain Arts and Culture, a branch of the Embassy of Spain that specializes in bringing Spanish arts and culture to the U.S.

When I learned that I would be attending a staged reading of a two-hour philosophical drama written in 1635, I almost choked on my complimentary Cava. But I shouldn’t have doubted the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which, having a broader and deeper arsenal of trained Classical actors at its disposal than probably any other arts organization on this side of the Atlantic, could no doubt mount any Classical show it wished on a day’s notice, let alone a humble staged  reading. In fact, this is precisely what STC did, poaching assorted Equity talents from a variety of ongoing DC shows, including STC’s current Henry IV. The evening was a veritable who’s who of the Washington, D.C. Classically Trained Shakespearean Actor Circuit – look! There’s Matthew Armandt Otherwise known as Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2! Next to him, Kevin McGuire and Derrick Lee Weeden, John Keabler, and Patrick Vaill, also of Henry IV fame. And over there, could it be? Yes, it’s Brad Makarowski, who will be understudying Victor and Elyot in STC’s upcoming Private Lives and Ellen Adair, who is the understudy for Amanda and Sibyl in the same production.

Photo courtesy of the Spanish Embassy.
Photo courtesy of the Spanish Embassy.

The result of all this star power was an enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable evening. The impetus for the reading comes from a new translation of Life is a Dream, a gem of the Spanish Golden Age of theatre which, although it is similar in style and close in period to Shakespeare, has never been as popular in America as its Elizabethan kin. Well, dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg and Director Gus Heagerty aimed to change that by introducing we Americans to Life is a Dream last night, at the former residence of the Spanish ambassador in Columbia Heights.

Of course, this is not the first time Life is a Dream  (La Vida Es Sueno in the original Spanish) has been staged in the U.S. But the new translation by Helen Edmundson is notable for its fluidity and veracity. By moving away from the stiff and literal translations of yore, Ms. Edmundson has delivered a version of Calderon’s masterpiece that is both more palatable to contemporary audiences and more true to Calderon’s original text.

The play itself is an interesting combination of philosophical contemplation and royal family drama. The story centers around Segismundo (John Keabler), a Polish prince whose father, King Basilio (Kevin McGuire) imprisoned from birth to avoid calamities prophesized by the unique astrology of his son’s birth. But King Basilio is no sadist; in fact, he hopes his son can succeed him to the throne, so long as he proves the malevolent prophecy wrong. So the King enlists his advisor, Clotaldo (Derrick Lee Weeden) to sedate Segismundo and install him as the rightful heir to the Polish throne. This he does, but when Segismundo awakes and learns the truth of his upbringing, he flies into a rage and promptly kills an innocent servant (William Landsman). King Basilio, now convinced his son truly is destined to be evil, sedates and incarcerates him again. Meanwhile, Rosaura (Tara Giordano) and her Fool Clarion (Brad Makarowski) travel to King Basilio’s court on a mission of vengeance. The King’s nephew, Astolfo (Patrick Vaill) had gone all the way with Roasura years before, but neglected to put a ring on it, and so now her “honor” is completely shot. This is a problem for Astolfo, who is now trying to marry the beautiful Estrella (Ellen Adair), if only so he can claim the throne when Uncle Basilio dies. All of this incestuous maneuvering has notes of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. But during the fast-moving Act III of Life is a Dream, things take a surprisingly positive turn. Although Segismundo, freed again from his tower, raises an army against Basilio, the affable monarch ends up peaceably abdicating his throne and even making personal peace with his son. The newly crowned Segiusmundo marries Estrella and directs Astolfo to marry Rosaura, thus restoring her honor, and oh by the way she is actually the secret daughter of Clotaldo, making her of noble birth.

The twists and turns of the plot of Life is a Dream would undoubtedly have escaped me entirely were they not carefully navigated by the actors. Because there was almost no physical action, and the “design” consisted of chairs, music stands, and a few portable mounted lights, the only real choices afforded to the actors were vocal. And like good Classical actors, they used the full range of their voices to bring Calderon’s words to life. They were also adept at carefully leading the audience through gargantuan soliloquies that make “To be or not to be” look like a children’s book. Indeed, beyond the cloak-and-dagger story of Life is a Dream are some very deep questions: Are we all dreaming? And if we are, what difference does that make? If everything in life is fleeting and arbitrary, should we abandon ourselves to self-centered hedonism? Or is there a higher imperative to do the right thing, even if the only one watching is God?

It was a pleasure to watch these eight actors practice their craft without the aid of costumes, set dressing or even blocking. It serves as a reminder that on stage, good acting is all that is required to express strong characters, and good writing to raise questions. I wish that all productions which do have the benefit of design and ample rehearsal time utilized the strong fundamentals of Life is a Dream. I suppose if they did, all shows would be masterpieces. But that, of course, is truly just a dream.

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Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one ten-minute intermission.

Life is a Dream played for one night only on June 2, 2014 at the former residence of the Spanish Ambassador – 2801 16th Street NW. For more information about Spain Arts and Culture, go online or call (202) 728-2334. For tickets to Henry IV and other upcoming shows at Shakespeare Theatre Company, call (202) 547-1122 or go online.

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Michael Poandl
Since graduating American University in 2013, Michael Poandl has pursued opportunities that combine his twin passions of politics and the arts. In the pursuit of advocating for the arts on the level of public policy, he ​currently serves as the Fundraising Associate for the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, the only organization dedicated exclusively to electing pro-arts candidates on the national level. Having studied Theatre and Art History in college, he remains an active theatre artist, and is proud to frequently contribute to DCMetroTheaterArts.com as a critic and interviewer.