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“LIFE IS A DREAM”— Calderon Twice

February 10-26, 2017
Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, New York, NY
La Mama ETC in association with Magis Theatre
Presents “Calderon’s Two Dreams”
Thurs.-Sat. @ 7 PM, Sun. @ 4 PM
Gen. adm. $18, students & seniors $13
Call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.lamama.org
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett February 16, 2017


These days it is rare enough to see Calderon de la Barca’s 1635 masterpiece about the vagaries of life and illusion, of internecine power-games and vanity, of social injustice and moral corruption—obviously the perennial stuff of human misery and tragedy. To see two very different treatments-- the second play dates from 1677-- of these same motifs by the same author in the same evening must be a novelty. We can thank the Magis Theatre and LaMama ETC for this historic theatrical excavation. The three hour performance is a tour de force for the actors but actually passed for me quite quickly due to the serious commitment of the young ensemble and the choreographic, musical, and visual elements which enlivened Calderon’s poetic texts. Director George Drance translated the 1677 text into English, a first for this play; the 1635 English version sounded also updated for this production. Both plays are morality plays: the 1635 version is built around the vicissitude of worldly power struggles; the 1677 version is an allegory of divine power as it plays out in God’s terrestrial creation. While the 1635 play deals with dynastic questions and the moral test of a ruler’s character, the 1677 play examines the proper interrelationship among the elements of divine creation—earth, air, water, fire-- and human dependency on the harmony of these elements in his own being (i.e. the balance of the humors) in order to exist with the proper mix of Free Will and Understanding. Both plays examine the vanity of power in light of our finite earthly life—our “dream.” In Calderon’s universe, it is God’s gift of Grace that makes Life bearable. Director George Drance puts it this way in his program note, “behind Magis’ taking on the mission of bringing [the texts] together, there is a simple voice that runs beneath the larger shadows of power, fate, honor, and illusion: the simple voice of love.”


Gabriel Portuondo as Clotaldo. Phot by Theo Cote.

That the ensemble loved what they were engaged in was clear from their enthusiastic and energized performances. The large space of the Ellen Stewart Theatre (formerly called The Annex) was very well designed by Caitlyn Murphy with a large white disc painted in the center of the floor space that gave focus and cohesion to the action. Towards the background were light gray cubes that could be arranged into various formations. In the 1635 play they formed the remote mountain dungeon in which Segismondo, the hapless son of King Basilio was imprisoned from birth. A backlit scrim with a mountain outline served as the backdrop and surface for shadow plays. The lighting designed by Alex de Nevers intimated the requisite variety of spaces from the rough nature surrounding Segismondo’s cell to King Basilio’s court. Siena Zoe Allen’s costumes were imaginative and emblematic of the characters—I especially liked Estrella’s courtly dress and slightly satiric feathery headdress bopping on her haughty head. Director George Drance gave stylistic cohesion to the young ensemble of diverse cultural backgrounds by emphasizing their physical aptitude and strength through a well executed complex choreography that enlivened the text without overwhelming it.

In the 1635 play a few parts and actors need to be highlighted: Estrella was played by Margi Sharp Douglas with a mix of elegant courtliness and a subtle undertone of irony while her suitor Astolfo was endowed by Joe McGranaghan with the humorous gestural pattern of an obnoxious court sycophant. Dennis Vargas negotiated the shifting moods of a ruler, at times reminiscent of foolish King Lear, and of the rueful father who is ultimately forced to recognize his own moral failings. Ashley Setzler as Rosaura, first in men’s clothing with an enormous sword strapped to her tall figure, also managed quite credibly the shifts of mood from fear to courage, from male to female. Gabriel Portuondo is an impressive Clotaldo, loyal courtier to Basilio and keeper of Segismondo, caught between moral and pragmatic exigencies that beset those who must serve the powerful. Young Segismondo has the most challenging part in that he lives in that twilight zone where reality, illusion, delusion, and the shadows of memory overlap and where his moral barometer is in uncharted zones. Gilbert Molina elicits feelings of sympathy and horror through his impassioned playing. The comic figure of Rosaura’s servant Horn, played by Erika Iverson, relies mostly on the stock comic trait of puns and physical abuse.

Calderon’s poetic 1677 version has the structure of a 17th century masque in which allegorical figures enact the agonistic battles in an elemental universe. By 1677 Calderon was almost at the end of his life; having been a soldier and a courtier, he was now a man of the cloth who questions the ways of God in his own creation. The Magis ensemble is directed in this part of the evening by Kelly Johnston. Their allegorical parts complement their roles in the 1635 “Life is a Dream” or give an opportunity to expand their roles. Calderon loosely follows the biblical act of creation; God is represented as a Trinity of Power, Wisdom, and Love enacted by three huge puppets with Byzantine features. Larger-than-life and manipulated by actors inside the puppets, in the style of the Bread and Puppet Theater, they tower over the white circle on stage where actors playing Air, Water, Earth, and Fire collaborate in mixing their elements to raise the first Man. God brings on Grace whose light should (but does not yet) save Man from his ill begotten quest for autonomous power. A most ingenious directorial idea was the rendering of The Prince of Darkness who sets this quest in motion. We see him first appear as a looming shadow on the scrim emerging behind the mountain silhouette. He is at once recognizable as the devil by his ears, pitchfork, and tail but when he comes on stage, he is a tiny wooden red puppet deftly manipulated by the actor Ali Kennedy Scott. This diminutive funny Prince of Darkness makes common cause with slinky Shadow. Played by silver-tongued Danielle Delgado with a white angular face, cloaked in head-to-foot black, she turns into the lithe seductive Serpent. Both are motivated by the real original sin: Jealousy of God’s power. They spout the seductive notion that brings about Man’s fall: by exercising pure free will Man becomes equal to God. We know the result: Paradise is lost and Man is condemned to death! Calderon, however, has God/Love bring back Grace with her light so that Man recognizes the chains of his hubris and is humbled into balancing his free will with understanding—the gift of God/Wisdom.

Last but not least must be mentioned the wonderful contribution of music throughout both plays. Liz Swados, who died prematurely last year, prepared a lovely sensitive and multi-hued score for viola, guitar, voice, and some percussion, performed live on stage by Almost an Orchestra with the musicians Uri Frazier, music director and guitarist, Stephen Cruzado, guitarist and percussionist, Christine Arboleda-Frazier, violist, and Jeonghun ‘Arron’ Kim, singer. Their musical sound-scapes gave both plays cohesion and clarity of atmosphere.

“Calderon’s Two Dreams” provides a thought provoking evening of theater with beauty and modesty that should have a longer run—or be brought back. Try to see it before it closes!

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