An overly-pensive prince and a tempest-tossed, cross-dressing maiden currently share the stage at the Whitney Theater, but their names are not Hamlet or Viola.
Prince Segismundo and Lady Rosaura, instead, are two members of a fairy-tale band of characters that populate “Life is a Dream,” directed by Isaac Durand ’10. Durand selected this 17th century parable by Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca to be his senior project.
The play follows a motley crew of royalty and fools, as they navigate a treacherous, twist-filled plot that includes self-fulfilling prophecies, swordfights, sleeping draughts and star-crossed lovers (no, still not Shakespeare). Calderón tackles questions of fate and free will, reality and illusion. As if these deep themes and unsolvable riddles aren’t enough, he also delves into the dark corruption that accompanies absolute power and the shining virtues of one’s quest for honor. Add consultations of the stars and a death by defenestration, and something is rotten in this nameless state.
After considering five different translations, Durand intentionally chose one, by Nilo Cruz, that didn’t place the play in time or place, so that its tale could exist outside the bounds of history and geography. Calderón had originally set the play in Poland and Russia, said Durand, because those places would have been exotic to the playwright.
The set for “Life is a Dream,” designed by Catherine Schroeder ’11, is modern, urban and spare – composed of scaffolding, a moveable set of stairs and bare light bulbs. A single, severe-looking, tall-backed chair indicates the court of King Basilio (played by the amiable Alex Klein ’12). These elements also alternately make up the evil prince’s dungeon, a blood-soaked battleground and other fantastical sites.
Taylour Chang ’11, the show’s sound designer, said she tried to create a “dream soundscape” and keep an “ethereal sentiment” throughout the play. The sound of clanging doors make for jarring transitions, but otherwise the effects add to the eerie, mystical atmosphere nicely.
For the most part, the cast of “Life is a Dream” lovingly conveys the play’s exquisite writing, which includes many asides, soliloquies and impassioned speeches (the exposition is fed to the audience with a silver spoon). Although sometimes exaggeration takes the place of real emotion, the play itself is melodramatic, so over-acting is almost inevitable. While the plot eventually becomes somewhat predictable, poetic declarations of love or anguish make up for the occasionally plodding pace. Calderón can conjure the fire of comets’ tails and gilded words of sapphire-bound tomes even as he ends his play with inevitable marriage vows.
“I feel like Rosaura cries in every scene except the first and last one,” said Allison Collins ’11, accurately summarizing her role as an ever-agonizing damsel with a desire for revenge. But she added, “It’s such an ensemble show. It’s really nice to be part of a cast that shares the stage generously.”
And they do, as no single character steals the show, though Jesse Kirkland ’12, as the tortured prince, has the most pathos, and Lily Lamb-Atkinson ’12, the noblewoman Estrella, refuses the most kisses with demure propriety.
Jenny Werner ’10, who designed the costumes, explained the attention she gave to each character’s clothes.
“We attached a 20th century feel, while also leaving it ambiguous,” she said.
And the styles of dress displayed – from courtly sashes to regulation camouflage uniforms (for rebel soldiers) to an academic tweed coat and bow-tie (for Astolfo, the prince’s tutor) accordingly stretch across the centuries. “We wanted a little bit of fantasy to be left,” Werner said.
The play’s greatest strength may be Calderón’s finely-crafted writing, but if his words are the play’s pulse, Durand and his cast and crew have clearly also put their hearts into this production. The result is a labor of love and an animated evening that, like a dream, briefly transports a cramped black box audience into Spain’s golden age and back again.
Said Durand: “It’s a story about a man leaving a tower, and that is very much a metaphor for senior year. Soon, we’ll be leaving the ivory tower and going into the real world.” Seniors – be warned. When the curtain falls on this dream of a play, you may wake up to find you are still in it.