Life’s a Dream
at the Chopin Theatre
By Jack Helbig
Whether or not you accept the whole Freudian oedipal thing lock, stock, and penis envy, you have to admit that parents and children have been fighting for as long as there have been parents and children. Children want to break free, be independent, make mistakes, and just generally live life. Parents want to guide, protect, and generally hold on just a little bit longer.
Even in the healthiest families this intergenerational push-pull can be painful. But when the families are out of whack–when the parents are motivated by irrational fears or hidden agendas, or the children are not ready emotionally or intellectually for freedom–things become complicated. And when things become complicated we have drama: one of the ways we explore extreme emotions from a safe distance.
Part of the brilliance of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 1635 masterpiece is how many devices he uses to keep the powerful emotions at the center of his story at a distance. He breaks the action with asides to the audience. He inserts bits of clownish comedy to undercut the drama, then kills off the most comic character without warning. And he plays gender-bending tricks on the audience: one character, Rosaura, enters as a man, reveals that “he” is really a woman, then resumes her disguise as a man. Yet even Calderon’s distractions and departures add something to the main theme.
The premise is reminiscent of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. A great king of Poland, Basilio, reading in the stars that his son will be a tyrannical monster who may kill his father, locks the boy in a tower, where he’s raised essentially as a beast. But Calderon’s aim is not to write a tragedy but to present an allegory for living. The point of the play is not that the son will kill his father but that the king should not have tried to read his future in the stars. The play’s title is also its main message: life’s a dream, so let it go easily, do your duty faithfully, and don’t buck your fate. In fact, when the son gains his freedom he returns not to kill his father but to accept him as the flawed person he is. This theme is cleverly echoed in various subplots, both comic and serious.
This play never fails to move me. But no other production I’ve seen has exploited its richness as fully as the one JoAnne Akalaitis has brought to the Court. Using a new translation by John Barton and Adrian Mitchell that artfully preserves Calderon’s rhymed couplets, Akalaitis seems equally at home with all aspects of a multifaceted play that resolutely refuses to be one thing or another.
At times Life’s a Dream plays like a comedy. A trickster, Calderon takes special delight in tangling his characters in double binds. Thus Rosaura finds herself in the odd position of wanting to both kill and marry a scoundrel named Astolfo. At other times Calderon plays the story as a swashbuckling melodrama. And at still other times the play seems a Platonic dialogue, with beautifully written meditations on the world and the human condition. (In his lifetime, Calderon’s meditations were favorably compared to those of his contemporary, Rene Descartes.)
Akalaitis and her cast and crew handle each turn in the text with aplomb. As in her last Court production, Iphigenia, she fills the stage with what looks like bathroom tile. And once again the set–designed by Gordana Svilar and dominated by red–is gorgeous, in a modern kind of way. Neither set in any way evokes the world of the play, but this one underscores the Shakespearean theme in Life’s a Dream: that we’re all players upon a stage. Svilar’s tiles–and the fluorescent tubes she threads through the design–remind us of the artificiality of watching a play set and written in the past but performed in the present.
The contemporary look of the set also contrasts beautifully with Kaye Voyce’s historically accurate costumes, which seem to have been lifted right out of a court painting by Velazquez. Every time an actor enters or exits, it sets up a cognitive dissonance that emphasizes the artificiality of the whole experience.
Akalaitis’s cast is strong and clear voiced, performing Barton and Mitchell’s literate, witty translation with remarkable ease. John Reeger is particularly moving as the foolish king: what a joy it is to watch this seasoned actor effortlessly negotiate his part–over the course of the play Basilio goes through almost as many changes as King Lear. And Yvonne Woods handles herself beautifully as Rosaura, the character who passes as a boy one moment, then a girl playing a boy, then a lady of the court, and finally as a sort of Joan of Arc, armed and ready for war.
Taylor Price is less satisfying as Sigismund, the beastlike son. He plays the tantrum-throwing child well, and when the play turns philosophical he delivers his soliloquies eloquently. But too often he seems stuck between Sigismund the beast boy and Sigismund the wronged prince. Unsure of how to play the character, he merely goes through the motions and leaves it to the rest of the cast to carry the show.
Which isn’t such a bad tactic in a production with as much talent as this one. Still, this Sigismund slightly undermines Calderon’s emotionally satisfying solution to the eternal battle between fathers and sons.
Mothers and daughters have their own conflicts, and these form the background for Jamie Pachino’s Aurora’s Motive, a fictionalized treatment of historical figures. This new work by a local playwright has everything necessary for drama almost as scintillating as Life’s a Dream: a brilliant mother and her equally brilliant daughter, their battles, and a fascinating setting–pre-civil war Spain at a time when it looked as if the feeble monarchy might easily evolve into a republic. Yet it lacks the vital spark that makes you focus all your attention on the stage.
In the early years of the 20th century a strong, intelligent, well-educated Spanish woman, Aurora Rodriguez, rebelled against her cosseted existence as the daughter of well-to-do parents. Unable to live the life of an outspoken intellectual–her father and brother found her learned conversation terrifyingly unladylike–she decided to devote her life to raising a daughter who would lead Spain, particularly Spanish women, into the 20th century.
Her daughter was named Hildegart, presumably after Hildegard von Bingen, the influential abbess and gifted composer who remains to this day a model of intelligent female leadership within the Catholic church. Hildegart Rodriguez too was destined to rule. A gifted writer and orator, she became nationally known while still in her teens for her passionate, well-reasoned essays in favor of progressive causes. But almost to the end of her short life–she died at 19–she was as much a mouthpiece for her mother’s ideas as for her own. When Aurora wasn’t outright telling Hildegart what to believe, she was deciding which books she could and could not read. Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, and H.G. Wells–then known more for his socialism than for his science fiction–were high on the list. The Bible was forbidden. Eventually even the best-behaved daughter would have rebelled against such close monitoring.
Pachino’s play climaxes with what is apparently the first major fight Aurora and Hildegart ever had. Hildegart wants to include passages from the Bible in her speeches; Aurora is shocked at the idea of her intellectually pure daughter sullying herself with silly superstitions. Their clash has tragic consequences.
Pachino researched her story carefully, even traveling to Spain to plow through newspapers of the period. And the facts are here, all right, presented in simple, easy-to-read form. But Pachino’s desire to tell the story as efficiently as possible works against the need to tell a compelling, believable tale. All the characters say exactly what they mean. No one hesitates, no one hides an agenda, no one seems uncertain of anything. That is, no one in the play seems to have an inner life. This is especially problematic in a work whose major conflict comes out of a partly unconscious clash between generations.
Pachino’s book-report style has served her well in the past, most notably in her 1995 historical drama Theodora: The Unauthorized Biography. But the story of this Byzantine empress was so strange and so shrouded in legend that Pachino’s simple, straightforward approach helped clarify what might otherwise have been a mind-boggling collection of rumors, half-truths, and outright lies.
Here Pachino’s flat style makes her doggedly linear story seem shallower than it is. The play isn’t helped by Edward Torres’s simple direction, which adds no illusion of a third dimension to the characters. Only Robin Margolis’s Hildegart feels like a full human being, while the rest–including Aurora–seem Disney World automatons, moving their arms in just the right way while they mouth historically authentic phrases at just the right moment.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.