Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Life Is a Dream
California Shakespeare Theatre

Also see Eddie's reviews of Gruesome Playground Injuries and Each and Every Thing, and Richard's reviews of Club Inferno and Glengarry Glen Ross

The Cast
Born in 1600 as a younger near-contemporary to Shakespeare and Cervantes, Pedro Calderón de la Barca in his long, diversified life of 81 years produced no less than 70 plays while also serving as the Spanish king's second-in-command, his key playwright, a knight, a fighting soldier, and finally a priest (all after first being imprisoned as a murderer). Perhaps it is all that life experience along with his poetic sense that enabled him to write Life Is a Dream—an expansive tale of love, revenge, forgiveness, and redemption all wrapped in an ongoing question of what difference, if any, there is between life and dream.

Hundreds of years later, Nilo Cruz comes along to translate, adapt, and greatly tighten up Calderón's original script, surely pulling in his own experiences where the boundaries between life and dream must have at times seemed fuzzy. (Mr. Cruz arrived in America as a 10-year-old Cuban escapee, later to become the first Latino winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Anna and the Tropics, a play chosen solely on his script since the committee had yet to see it produced.) Finally comes Magic Theatre's Artistic Director Loretta Greco to oversee as director a fast-paced, often exciting, and always fascinating outdoor production of Life Is a Dream at the esteemed California Shakespeare Company.

Sean San José is the imprisoned Prince Segismundo who has spent his life chained and isolated in the desert because his father King Basilio (the tall, commanding Adrian Roberts) fears an astrological omen at his birth that supposedly destined him to become a monster. Treated as he has been, Segismundo lives up to that fated destiny as he rants and raves like a sideshow mad man from a traveling carnival, calmed only by the stories and teachings of his prison guardian, the distinguished and powerfully spoken Julian López-Morillas as Clotaldo (a royal member of the court assigned to be the Prince's keeper and guard). When the tormented King decides to give his now-grown son a chance for freedom and resume his role as heir, Segismundo cannot let go so easily all those years of being treated as an animal, and fulfills in monstrous manner (through an absolutely evil embodiment by Mr. San José) his father's worst fears, dooming him once again to seclusion.

Amidst all this family drama, a beautiful foreign woman named Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), dressed as a man (beginning yet to sound Shakespearean?), arrives to avenge her honor from a scorned lover, Astolfo (Amir Abdullah). Astolfo in the meantime has decided he now loves his equally stunning cousin Estrella (Tristan Cunningham); and the two hilariously try to one-up each other in showering their uncle, King Basilio, with flattery, each hoping to be chosen his successor since the Prince is evidently out of the picture. But the people of the kingdom are not excited about not following the natural order of the world, and they both raise an army and free the rightful Prince in order to overthrow his father and prevent Astolfo from being their next sovereign.

This complicated tale has many more fantastical twists and turns than will be relayed here, but is fortunately told with clarity and relative succinctness (a one-act, 140 minutes) via Nino Cruz's version and Loretta Greco's direction. What makes the telling all the better is the comic commentator and lowly servant Clarin, who both explains at times to us what is really going on and also shows up in every scene as a welcome, comic diversion from the much-serious dramatics of all the family feuding. Jomar Tagatac is impish and endearing as the highly fraidy-cat Clarin who will do anything to avoid possible pain, but who is also extremely and bravely loyal to those he serves. He also has a knack of sticking his nose in all the wrong places and, as final fate has it, has the luck to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. (His lower-class presence and role in the storytelling and uplifting the play's serious mood is yet another parallel between Calderón and the earlier Shakespeare, although history does not provide any solid evidence that the former ever read or saw a play of the great English master.)

Throughout the telling, life and dream are continuously compared. The King declares, "In this life, everyone who lives is dreaming." Segismundo opines, "Life is so strange, living seems like dreaming." We are told, "We all live in dream or reality until we awake." The confusion of what is dream and what is real is accentuated by Ms. Greco's mixing both the modern time period through elements of modern warfare (grenades, helicopters, metal cells with remote-controlled doors) and a period more of Calderón's lifetime through impressive period costumes (designed by Alex Jaeger), use of swords, and general demeanor of courtly life. Cliff Caruthers greatly assists the illusion through outstanding sound effects with the result that at times, we are sure we are surrounded by hundreds of modern, fighting soldiers and other times, by thousand of adoring, Spanish kingdom masses. Are we in the now or in the then? Like a dream, it is not quite clear; but neither does it really matter as we allow ourselves just to be engulfed in the story.

Along with the question is this life really a dream, the play positions before us the 17th century philosophical and religious question of how much of our life is determined by destiny (supposedly Divine) and how much by our human will. The playwright clearly places himself among those who believe we can control our own destinies but only through letting go of our naturally strong desires for revenge of others' wrongs and instead opening ourselves to forgiveness.

Like Shakespeare's later romance plays, Calderón has employed the serious themes, battles, and tyrannies of tragedies while relying on the love intrigues and magical last-minute fixes of comedies to ensure a happy ending. In his version of a 17th century romance as now updated by Mr. Cruz and Ms. Greco on the Cal Shakes stage, Calderón has left us a rarely produced gem that has action, intrigue, comedy, and the ability to leave us with smiles on our faces as we exit.

Life Is a Dream continues at the California Shakespeare Theatre through August 2, 2015, in Orinda, CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-548-9666.

Next in the Cal Shakes 2015 season is The Mystery of Irma Vep (by Charles Ludlam and directed by Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone), August 12 - September 6.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Eddie Reynolds

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