By Venus Zarris
Director Elizabeth Carlin-Metz is not one to shy away from challenging work, and by challenging I mean epic. King Lear, Anna Karenina, Mother Courage and Her Children and A Passage to India are a few of the theatrical odysseys that she has traversed. In Vitalist Theatre’s latest production if Calderón de la Barca’s classic play Life is a Dream, adapted by Helen Edmundson and produced in association with Premiere Theatre & Performance, Carlin-Metz forgoes contemporary formulas of easily digestible characters and simple circumstances to launch her cast and audience on a vision quest of heroic proportions. For all intense and purpose, our abbreviated LOL and OMG sound-bite attentions spans should fade after the first monologue. If we make it through that, there are plenty of back-story laden others to follow that might very well lose us along the way. Yet despite this conventionally unfamiliar territory of long-winded exposition, antiquated characters and loftier than thou themes, we are completely drawn in. Hooked might even be a better word.
Segismundo, prince and heir to the throne of Poland, was locked in a tower as a baby. Frightening prophecies predicting that his birth would bring about the fall of the empire and usher in a time of chaos were only heightened by his mother’s death during delivery.
“He killed his mother with his birth and so declared, “Beware of ME!” The king pontificates when explaining his extreme parental precautionary actions but this is, after all, his son and so despite better judgment the king decides to give him a chance. Segismundo is slipped an herbal ruffie in his dark prison and wakes to the opulence of the palace, but after years of isolation he has some anger management issues to contend with.
He goes on a violent rampage and so it is back to the tower for the bewildered prince. When Segismundo wakes up back in solitary confinement, he is not sure whether the royal ordeal was real or just a figment of his suppressed imagination.
“We dream our lives until we wake… What is life? … What does it mean when dreams are life and life is a dream?”
There are royal cousins concocting an incestuous plan to steal the throne, angry mobs that want Segismundo to take his rightful place in the palace, a cross-dressing noblewoman hell bent on avenging her honor and her jester-of-a-servant tossed in to add generous helpings of comic relief.
Leviathan is the word that comes to mind when watching this sprawling story. It is a monster of a play comprised of many labyrinths of expository details. Sometimes you see a play and there is one character that bares the responsibility of filling us in on all of the needed particulars. In a Greek tragedy, that responsibility falls on the chorus. In Barca’s Life is a Dream, every character bares an Atlas weight of poetically articulated expository minutiae. That is to say, they do a LOT of talking. Any weak link in this chain of complex storytelling would send the tower of Babel that is this script crashing to the ground.
Fortunately for us the words are beautiful and, under the astute and passionate direction of Carlin-Metz, the gifted cast is more than capable of bringing them to life.
Lindsay Rose Kane and Gregory Issac are enticing as Prince Astolfo and Princess Estrella. They create conniving chemistry through delicate performances, beautifully opting for subtly over bombast that delivers more impact because of their sophisticated restraint. Ivan Vega is quirky and funny as Clarion. Despite some physical awkwardness to his performance, Vega infuses charming humor to the story without detracting from the drama. Madrid St. Angelo is regal as the king, adding a hint of idiosyncratic melodrama to his delivery that is both appropriate to his character and subversively funny. Kings are odd and self-important and St. Angelo makes that wonderful to watch by adding color to his emotion, which is both eccentric and human. Vanessa Greenway is splendid as Rosaura. She brings strong presence and exceptional depth to her part with impressive intelligence and grace. Paul Dunckel is outstanding as the imprisoned and manipulated Segismundo. From beginning to end he brings clarity to a character that is riddled with confusion by never compromising the personal strength of the prince. Tossed from one reality to another, Dunckel’s delivery is crystal clear. His oration is captivating and his frequent extreme emotional transitions are honest and fascinating. This story ultimately belongs to Segismundo and Dunckel owns it with conviction.
Richard Norwood’s lighting design adds wonderful versatility to Tracy Otwell’s simple yet striking set design. Rachel Sypneiwski blends old and new to create an attractively stylized costume deign. R & D Choreography delivers exceptionally realized staged violence. Gregor Mortis’s sound design is excellent as always and proves that, used in the right moments; there are few things more musically evocative than the compositions of Dead Can Dance.
The choice of this dated script feels perhaps a bit academic. Even with Edmundson’s shiny new and lovely adaptation, it seems more like a literary theatrical history lesson than a fresh new fount of relevance. Still, the reason why Barca’s play has endured for well over 400 years is because no character is totally righteous or totally evil. That grey in-between area where we all exist in reality surfaces as a haze of ambiguity in dreams. Hence, “Even in sleep, a little goodness never goes amiss.” That is not only a timeless notion, but also precious wisdom.
Life is a Dream demands a great deal from its audience. It demands that we pay attention to the details. It demands that we listen to rambling monologues of gorgeous words. It expects us to care about the contrived characters and follow the twists and turns of the peculiar story. Miraculously and marvelously, it commands our attention throughout the entire journey by realizing clarity to a script that could easily be lost in the mist of its own density. This is the third adaptation that I have seen of this play and by far the most complete and compelling. For the cast, crew and audience, Life is a Dream is a high maintenance play and this Vitalist Theatre production is wholeheartedly high yield. It is a challenge well worth the undertaking and a production well worth your time.
3 ½ STARS
(“Life is a Dream” runs through June 11 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252)
Life is a Dream production images by Anthony Aicardi.
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Life Is A Dream – Stage 773 – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago