'Tis a lumbering theatrical beast to try to chain, but billing the old Spanish war horse Life Is a Dream as Life's a Dream is not enough to tame it for modern theatergoers. Mixed Magic Theatre is staging the 1635 classic by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, directed by Jonathan Jacobs (through November 27).
A dramatic centerpiece of Spain's Golden Age, the play moved its original audiences because it is an allegory that addresses profound contemporary concerns about what makes us human, such as suppressing our animalistic urges and regarding honor as a supreme value. A few years earlier, Shakespeare had Prospero observe that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on," but Calderón carries the implications farther.
This larger-than-ordinary-life story is hard to convey within the confines of naturalistic theater, which is why an operatic adaptation in Santa Fe was received so well last year. Short of a libretto and well-placed arias, some serious production values, in the form of set and costumes, could enhance the mundane as Calderón attempted. We see a fancy sword in this production, which figures in the plot, but that's about as far as we are transported.
Fortunately, there are able actors in the crucial roles, so all is not lost. Foremost is Yakim Parker, convincingly focused as the central character, Sigismund (for some reason, changed from Calderón's Segismundo, as the clown Clarion was changed to Clanon). When we meet him, he is caged in a tower, raised there from birth. He was born to be King of Poland, but the queen (Joan Dillenback) was frightened by a prophecy that predicted he would rule as a despot and bring the country to ruin. The only person allowed to speak to him has been Clotaldo, well-grounded by Eric Behr. He is the nobleman and aide to the queen who has been Sigismund's teacher.
Secretly, Clotaldo is also the father of Rosaura (Tammy Brown), who has come to Poland with her clown, Clanon (a droll John Dziadosz), to find her father and "win back my honor." The sword she carries is the only thing she possesses from her father, who abandoned his family in Moscow years before. While Clotaldo recognizes her by the sword, she can't identify him until he reveals himself at the end. Rosaura intends to reclaim her honor by using the sword on a gentleman named Astolfo (Jason Quinn), who also abandoned her after promising marriage and is now at the Polish court.
Astolfo, however, now has plans to marry his cousin Estrella (Melanie Stone), since they are nephew and niece of the queen and would like to take the throne upon her death.
The queen does not disapprove. But she is guilty about how she treated her son, so first she wants to give Sigismund a chance to misprove the prophecy about his becoming a cruel leader. She has him drugged, to wake up in the royal bed as though his previous life has been a dream. If he tries to be a benevolent king, fine; otherwise, he will find himself waking up back in the tower, believing that his royal episode was just a dream.