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Calderon's Two Dreams

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 15, 2017

Gilbert Molina
Photo by Theo Cote

If you are a devotee of William Shakespeare and are interested in what was being written by his contemporaries, you are sure to be intrigued by the rare opportunity to see what is a thoroughly engaging production of the two versions of Life Is A Dream, the most renowned play by Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Calderon wrote the two variations 42 years apart, in 1635 and 1677. They are being performed back-to-back by the Magis Theatre Company at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, under the title Calderon's Two Dreams.

Calderon is one of the stars of Spain's Golden Age, a period in which literature and the arts flourished in the 17th Century. To give you an idea, Miguel de Cervantes's masterwork Don Quixote was first published in 1605. Twenty years later, Calderon came up with his first version of Life Is A Dream.

Of the two versions, the one from 1635 is the most Shakespeare-like, fitting in with such "problem plays" as Measure For Measure. As in that play, Life Is A Dream features a nobleman who decides to try a psychological experiment and then watch as it unfolds. In Shakespeare's work, the Duke of Vienna pretends to leave the city, but then hangs around to see how things will go in his absence. In Life Is A Dream, it is the King, Basilio (Dennis Vargas), who is conducting the experiment.

The guinea pig here is his son, Prince Segismundo (Gilbert Molina), whom the King has imprisoned in a tower from the time of his birth, following a dire prophesy that the prince would wreak havoc on the land. Now, two decades later, Basilio realizes that "to prevent a tyrant, I became a tyrant." And so he plans to release Segismundo, place him on the throne in a kind of interim position, and watch to see how his son acts. If it works out, great; if not, he will have the prince returned to the tower and convince him that his freedom and power had all been but a dream.

As with Shakespeare, Calderon provides us with several intersecting plots, encompassing political intrigue, confused identities, last-minute marriages, and a comic character, Horn (Erika Iverson), who may remind you of Cervantes's Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's squire. But it really is Segismundo's story that carries the play forward, and the grand theme that emerges is one of pitting fate against free will (or, in modern terms, nature vs. nurture).

Fast forward 42 years to the second version of the play, which Calderon wrote under very different circumstances. He was now in his seventies, and he had long given up his worldly life to become a Roman Catholic priest. If the first version reminds you of Shakespeare, then the second will take you back to a much earlier time, to the age of Mystery plays that flourished in Britain and in Spain for centuries. These were plays that retold the stories of the Bible and were presented at religious festivals. In this version of Life Is A Dream, Calderon retells the story of Creation, the interference by Satan, original sin (though his "Adam" character is without an Eve), and the intervention of Jesus as savior of the human race. Free will remains as a driving theme, but it is counterbalanced by religious faith and fealty instead of fate.

The 11 cast members of the company do wonderfully taking on roles in both plays, and despite a running time of more than three hours, you are unlikely to be bored or to have much difficulty in following the events as they unfold (the translation is credited to George Drance, who serves as director of the 1677 version and assistant director of the 1635 version).

The first play, for which Kelly Johnston is the lead director, is done in a style that looks and sounds most like a Shakespeare work. It has incidental music by Elizabeth Swados, long associated with La MaMa, that is performed by a very talented group of musicians. But it is the second version that gets the full-out La MaMa treatment, with Swados's songs and a production that have a ‘60s folk mass feel to them, along with similarly stylish costumes and puppets, including giant ones with the look of religious iconic art, representing Wisdom, Power, and Love.

These, then, are Calderon's Two Dreams, and what an experience it is to see both of these performed together in the same evening. Anyone with any interest in this theatrical time period should not hesitate to catch it during its run. You'll not likely have this opportunity again any time soon.

Calderon's Two Dreams
Through February 26
The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street between Second Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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