The production of Life is a Dream at Indiana State University’s New Theater, is, as the kids say these days, a hot mess. The effort by the ISU Theater Department to produce a work from the Golden Age of Spanish drama is commendable; a theater subsidized by government funding should take the risk of staging something other than a popular crowd pleaser.
Also worthy of commendation is the cast. These young actors were well rehearsed. Simply delivering the lines clearly must have been a challenge because of the formal declamatory style of the play. Undoubtedly, working on the play was an enriching educational experience for them.
Unfortunately, the same was not true for the audience. The program offered neither biographical information about the playwright, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, nor a synopsis of the play to help audience members better follow the action. A lot of characters are introduced with no apparent connection to one another, and important background information unfolds through complex speeches. Program notes could have been a useful guide.
During intermission, I overheard an exchange very close to what might occur between two jail inmates: “What are you here for?” “Spanish class.”
Director Arthur Feinsod’s decision to tie the play, through set elements and costuming, to Surrealist Rene Magritte was an additional complication. In the program, Feinsod says setting the 17th century play in a dreamscape inspired by the 20th century artist was done “in the hopes that this context will enable [Calderon’s questions] to stand out clearly for today.” It actually had the opposite effect. Those unfamiliar with Magritte’s works were left clueless.
The audience largely comprised students who were there to complete an assignment for class. During intermission, I overheard an exchange very close to what might occur between two jail inmates: “What are you here for?” “Spanish class.”
What on earth did the poor fellow get from his two-hour investment that pertained to Spain? To his credit (in the moral, not academic sense), he stayed for the whole performance. Some rows emptied out after the first act.
Were they all intellectual slackers? Or were some just too perplexed to remain? Hearing characters talk about their sumptuous royal garments when you can see they are wearing an ill-fitting suit, or call for a sword when their enemies are brandishing pistols creates a level of cognitive dissonance difficult for a first-year college student to surmount.
And, since I’ve brought up the suits, I might as well say the costumes in general were disappointing. They looked sloppy (ties askew, straps on the WWI era helmets sticking out), drab (never was an ingénue draped in more funereal colors) and just plain cheesy (the king’s cape lined with cheap sparkly fabric, the “animal skins” worn by the chained wild man that looked like two fuzzy brown bathroom rugs sewn together).
Dylan Gentilcore, as Segismund, the wild man/prince of Poland, had, perhaps, the most challenging role in the play. Not only did he have to deliver philosophical monologues, and portray both a rabid beast and the most noble of men, he had to do so wearing either the aforementioned brown ruggish get-up, or a black suit with a bright purple vest that made him look like a card sharp in Deadwood.
In addition to the live actors, the play featured life-sized wooden figures in a couple of scenes. Bowler hats and canes made them identifiable as references to Magritte’s work, but their significance to the play itself and the point of their movement was not so clear. During one of Segismund’s speeches, a table covered with flat wooden soldiers was rolled to center stage and the figures were lifted and positioned with slow precision.
Apparently there was a perception that the audience would become restive without some sort of action. But Calderon’s play is dependent on the power of words, and actions that don’t arise naturally are always a distraction. Can you imagine, say, a roulette wheel marked alternately “Live” and “Die” spinning in front of Hamlet while he gives his “To be or not to be” speech? Of course you can’t, and for good reason.
Not every play can be adapted to theater-in-the-round where it’s impossible to make quick entrances or exits by moving into the wings. The lights going down after every scene so actors could scramble off in various directions, slowed down an already slow-paced play.
Yes, I understand the concept of suspending disbelief, but one can only go so far.
Worse yet were two scenes that became unintentionally comic due to the stage constraints. When Segismund makes good on his threat to throw someone off a balcony, he hoists his victim over his shoulder, carries him to one of the stairways, and in full view of the audience, they both run up the stairs. Yes, I understand the concept of suspending disbelief, but one can only go so far.
Subsequent to this violent behavior, Segismund is returned to his dungeon, chained hand and foot. Back in his faux fur costume, he muses on his pitiable state, and falls into a faint. Lights out, and we hear him hopping off as if a sack race has broken out.
An intentional directorial choice to add a comic note struck me as jarring. The major characters are all engaged in a civil war in the last act. SPOILER ALERT Clarion, a sort of court jester, is the only casualty. He does not go out with dignity. He staggers and falls melodramatically, only to rise a moment later to deliver a couple of lines before he falls melodramatically, and then rises a moment later to deliver a couple of lines… and so on. His lines are about how his attempt to avoid death actually hastened it; there’s nothing in them to support the extended joke in his actions. It got a laugh; it also got in the way of the point Calderon was making.
The role of Clarion was played by Tommy McGee, who sometimes put me in mind of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, and I do mean that as a compliment. Nicole Hill as Rosaura performed most ably when demonstrating the desire for revenge. Rayanna Bibbs conveyed an appropriately queenly demeanor as Stella, while Charles Adams in a minor role as one of the soldier/servants displayed a scary intensity.
To my mind, the two main themes of the play were man’s ability to escape fate and shape his own destiny – kind of a reverse Oedipus – and the importance of honor. Clotaldo, played by Luke Carr, has several speeches in which he struggles to sort out competing claims on his loyalty, since therein his honor lies. Rosaura’s actions are not merely those of a woman scorned, rather she is bent on the type of honor killing we associate with extremists in the Middle East.
The same ideas about family honor tied to a woman’s virtue were part of Spanish culture when Calderon was writing. In fact, he has a couple of plays based on wives murdered due to infidelity. In Life is a Dream, he not only reverses gender roles, he ultimately settles the issue without anyone being killed. If I’d felt the need to take the play out of 17th century Spain for a modern audience, I would have put it in 21st century Afghanistan. The main premise is a man who has locked his son in a dungeon his whole life. Call me anti-Islamist if you want, but that sounds like a Taliban-backed warlord to me.
Lucinda Berry was born in Terre Haute, got a B.A. in English from Indiana State University, studied in Oxford, England, and worked in Shimonoseki, Japan and traveled a good deal in Asia, got an M.A. in Linguistics from Indiana University, and eventually ended up back in Terre Haute. Her favorite place in Terre Haute is the Swope Art Museum. If she happened to be there when a fire broke out, she would rush to save Jack Levine’s “A Joy Forever.”