Bailiwick Repertory

Pity poor David Zak. The guy’s taken more heat than a Counselor’s Row hamburger over the last few months. Cast as the Jim Dvorak of the Chicago theater community, he’s seen himself grated up and grilled in places as public as the Tribune’s “Inc.” column for a whole list of alleged improprieties involving unpaid salaries and conflicts of interest.

The way he’s been hounded, you’d almost think someone had it in for him. You’d almost think so. But then maybe this intense scrutiny’s just the price one pays for a chance to work in the glitzy, glamorous, high-stakes world of Chicago’s not-for-profit theater.

Anyway, it seems appropriate that Zak would take this particular moment to direct Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream. The title alone suggests the sort of lethean escape he might find attractive just now. But more to the point, the plot revolves around a man who finds his outward reality so disorienting, so capricious, inscrutable, malevolent, and just plain weird that he rejects it as a dream, and bases his actions on innate truths–on an internal reality–instead. I can see how Zak might identify.

A kind of a cross between Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, Calderon’s 355-year-old masterpiece tells the story of Segismundo, a prince of Poland, who’s grown up in wild isolation–imprisoned in a mountaintop castle by order of his father, King Basilio, because of a prophecy that he’ll bring disaster on the kingdom. But now Basilio’s old; he’s begun to think about the succession, and he orders Segismundo brought to court as a test of both the prophecy and the boy’s qualifications for sovereignty.

It’s a stupid move, of course. If Basilio had had any hopes at all of evading the prophecy, he destroyed them when he abandoned Segismundo to the wild. The kid’s quite naturally a beast: vicious, voracious, uncouth, uninhibited, and thoroughly pissed off. He immediately sets about killing the men and raping the women. Not a little bit disappointed, Basilio orders Segismundo drugged and taken back to the mountain.

But it’s too late. The commonfolk now know they have a prince. They resist Basilio’s choice of the foreign-born–and consummately off-putting–Astolfo as his successor, free Segismundo, and fight alongside him to gain the throne. Before long, Basilio’s not only deposed but prostrate, subject to Segismundo’s mercy.

Which he certainly wouldn’t have got the first time around. All this back-and-forth has changed Segismundo, however: the experience of going from hell to monarchy and back to hell again has brought him to the revelation that nothing lasts, that nothing’s certain–that life, in fact, is a dream from which we waken into another, realer reality. Thus freed from his entanglement with the material world, from his beastly appetite for flesh, Segismundo is ennobled. He forgives his father and becomes a wise ruler.

A pious man who eventually became a priest, Calderon intended this tale to be read in a Christian context–albeit an enlightened Christian context: it’s interesting to compare the notions here with those Descartes would come out with just a few years later. Zak very shrewdly sheds the Christian gloss and recasts Segismundo’s tale in 20th-century terms, as a testament to the absurdity of things. He draws out the cosmic joke, rather than the divine order, in Calderon’s vision.

James Marsters plays Segismundo as a baroque James Dean: cool and ironic, but with a sad vulnerability–a hurt–underneath. He sees the existential humor in what’s happening to him, recognizes himself as the punch line, but can’t quite bring himself to laugh along. The production’s single most perfect moment comes when, having been freed by the common folks, Marster’s almost trippily bemused Segismundo gives one of them a little shove–a reality check, and a confirmation that it’s all just too ridiculous. This is Calderon reimagined by Sartre.

Or it could be, anyhow. Unfortunately, Zak and his mostly inexperienced cast manage only a rough approximation of the concept. Neither their joke nor Calderon’s incredible theatricality are consistently manifest here. Just your basic dream of what might have been. Greggory Geswaldo tries to be funny and isn’t as Clarion the fool. Jeanne M. Dwan tries to be dignified and ends up seeming trivial as Rosaura, the heroine of a subplot. Lee Wessof fails to exhibit the venality he must have as King Basilio, while Robert A. Mullen’s Astolfo exhibits so much that he comes across as a lightweight rather than the serious rival he must be. All in all, the only really successful element besides Marsters–who could nevertheless use a lot more savagery and a better wig–is the lovely, tapestrylike set by Gregory Musick.

The show simply doesn’t work. And on top of everything, it opens up a new scandal for Zak: I’m admitting here and now that I’ve reviewed Life Is a Dream despite the fact that a student of mine plays a spear-carrier–rather nicely, too–in the production. I’m sure this is going to go badly for both of us in “Inc.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.