“Sueno” is a hypnotic experience that tries to pass off a Thursday night session at a secret society as 17th century Spain. At first, the deception works, and you willingly accept that you’re watching King Basilio’s (Robert Jordan ’04) ill-fated son Segismundo (Andrew Levine ’04), who’s been banished from the kingdom because a clique of fatalist astrologers gave him a resounding vote of no-confidence.
But the Spanish ruse can only last so long. Jose Rivera’s play takes place at the tomb, after all, and even a talented scenic designer like Kandace Gollomp ’04 can’t really trick you into thinking that the giant, windowless stone building is actually the King’s palace or Seigismundo’s mountaintop prison. In addition, the actors make some revealing mistakes. A couple of times, the servants and guards forget to remove their tap-night costumes — those grim reaper cloaks and white plastic party masks with long beaks — before they come on stage. But what really gives it away is the dialogue after Segismundo breaks his shackles and begins his quest for the crown. Spend two hours at any society, and the conversation will inevitably gravitate toward the topics of power, money, conquest, and nepotism.
How Don Pedro Calderon de la Barca, who penned the original play “Life is a Dream” on which Rivera’s adaptation is based, could have known about the secret society more than a century before its conception is indeed a vexing question. But somehow he’s nailed its aura precisely. “Sueno” is an engrossing hallucination that’s intensely serious as well as unabashedly silly. It’s scary, to be sure, driven by unruly machismo and hooliganism. The play as a whole upends all sense of reality to hover in the world of dreams, yet to all those involved, the battles for life and death are anything but illusory.
Director Greg Yolen ’04 has conceived a winning production at the Dramat’s Experimental theater. Above all, he’s used the stage to full effect by playing the two introductory scenes in front of the stage, at seat-level. When the lights finally expose the imposing tomb — a mystical vision equal to Atlantis or Brigadoon — two traveling soldiers cautiously creep up onto the stage and enter the fantasy without looking back. The rest of the story unfolds in a coherent and consistent world of its own.
Yolen is a scene columnist.
The script has its faults; the plotty scenes inside the bright and colorful palace start to drag after a while, and the formulaic ending is an insanely tidy shock. “Sueno” does much better in the shadows and in the ambiguous states of dreams. Still, there is elegance in its classical construction and exploration of the age-old problem of free will. When Segismundo turns violent, avenging his caged youth — thus proving the stars’ predictions right — one has to wonder if he would have committed the atrocities if he’d never been imprisoned in the first place, if his father hadn’t attempted to prove the predictions wrong.
As one grasps for some bearings and wonder what is “real” and what isn’t — and the possible consequences of each interpretation — the tight ensemble keeps the story grounded. No one actor emerges as the star, though each demonstrates that he or she can ably hold the stage in monologue. But the real treat of watching Yolen’s cast is the fact that they’re a talented group of listeners. Good things happen when actors open their ears, stop acting, and start reacting to each other on stage. The exchanges become more dire, the emotion more honest, and the audience’s experience richer.
Levine as Segismundo and Molly Kleiman ’03 as forceful and feisty female soldier Rosaura are a fiery pair, exhilarating to watch. Each is explosive as well as cunning, and when they match wits the results are truly entertaining. As performers, Levine and Kleiman are in total command of their delivery, physicality and progressive arcs throughout the play. Their abilities mark high points for the cast.
Levine was my personal favorite, as the wild child who turned into a desperate reservoir dog hungry for power, and later, revenge. But could I help it if Levine also reminded me most clearly of a certain Skull and Bones alumnus? He ascends to power in his father’s footsteps, despite being wet behind the ears and rough around the edges. As soon as the crown is placed upon his sweaty brow he systematically disrespects everyone of importance and manages to utter phrases like, “I am the law,” “Death to foreigners!” and, “Every word out of your mouth is treasonous.” The main — crucial — difference between Segismundo and that famous Skull and Bonesian is that Segismundo has a terrific, poetic command of the English language.
Unfortunately, Levine is not alone in coming short of being thoroughly convincing; the show shares that tendency. You’re never truly transported back in time and across the ocean because there’s always a Greg Yolen smirk underneath each performance that keeps the transformations incomplete. But that strange tension between the broad archetypal characters and the delicious wink-wink self-consciousness is reflected in the very language of the script and seems completely natural since the actors accept it wholeheartedly.
Yolen’s production is particularly resonant in the context of world conflict and the streets of Yale’s campus. The truly frightening thing is, the personalities and devastating events that the play evokes are no dream, and there’s no stage crew that can erase the madness and reorder the world when the stage lights fade out.