Review of Sueño at the Sargent Conservatory

    Sueño is José Rivera’s translation and adaptation of Life is a Dream (in Spanish, La vida es sueño), a 1635 play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. According to Wikipedia, Calderón “is regarded as one of Spain’s foremost dramatists and one of the finest playwrights of world literature.”

    Wikipedia says Life is a Dream “is a philosophical allegory regarding the human situation and the mystery of life. The play has been described as ‘the supreme example of Spanish Golden Age drama.’” This description left me unprepared for how irreverent and funny Sueño was in the exuberant production at the Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts.

    In both the original and the adaptation, the principal character is Segismundo, the son of King Basilio. At his birth, Segismundo’s stars predict he will grow up to be a cruel tyrant who divides the kingdom and overthrows his father. To avert this fate, Basilio imprisons Segismundo in a secret tower.

    After 25 years, Basilio has second thoughts and devises a plan to put the prophecy to a test. He frees Segismundo and puts him on throne. If Segismundo defies the prophecy, he will remain king. If he demonstrates the predicted cruelty, he will be returned to prison and told that his time as king was only a dream. Basilio will then bestow the throne on his nephew and niece, Astolfo and Estrella, who are first cousins. In a secondary plot, a young woman named Rosauro disguises herself to seek revenge on Astolfo, who seduced and abandoned her.

    According to an interview published before the New York production of Sueño, Rivera accepted a commission from Hartford Stage to adapt Life is a Dream before looking at the play. His response to his initial reading was that he “didn’t like the play at all,” and he considered changing his mind about the commission. Instead, he began a long engagement with the play that produced Sueño.

    Rivera’s adaptation retains the characters and the major plot elements of the source but undercuts its seriousness. King Basilio, for example, is a foolish narcissist rather than a learned student of astrology. This change makes sense for contemporary audiences, as does the playfulness in the approach to the theme of appearance versus reality.

    The conservatory production, directed by Jess Shoemaker, built on the humor in the adaptation. A guard made entrances on a scooter. Characters prepared themselves for war by putting on clear plastic ponchos rather than armor. This wisdom of this strategy was borne out when the weapons in the battle turned out to be water guns. Jack Kalan was the fight choreographer. The production even added comical elements to scenes about Segismundo’s blinding of a servant. The opening night audience, made up mostly of students, could not have been more receptive to the production’s emphasis on comedy.

    Jayson Heil’s gripping portrayal of Segismundo brought complete credibility to changes in his character triggered by changes in his circumstances. Even Segismundo’s earnest meditations on fate worked in Heil’s performance.

    Fabiola Cabrera walked a fine line in finding both humor and pathos in Rosaura’s quest for vengeance. Maya Love’s delivery of precurtain announcements set the tone for a portrayal of King Basilio suffused with hilarious self-infatuation. Ashley Schwach gave the production’s most forthright performance as Clotaldo, Segismundo’s jailor, but still found ways to bring humor to part when required.

    Wylie Godleski as Astolfo and Isabelle Chauny as Estrella created very funny comic characters. Samy Cordero brought a sympathetic sweetness as well as effective clowning to a portrayal of Clarín, Rosaura’s servant, who develops a close relationship with Segismundo. Emma McDonough, CB Brown, and Gabby Torres played their parts admirably in small roles.

    The production concept put the action in a setting based in the surrealistic paintings of Remedios Varo. Machaela Brock’s scenic design stretched the full length of the Emerson Studio Theatre. At one end was Segismundo’s tower, a seat inside a cage suspended from a cloud. At the other end was Basilio’s flashy palace. The atmosphere for the production was enhanced by Zoie Cox’s sumptuous 17th century costumes, Bekah Toone’s elaborate hair and makeup designs, Erin Riley’s lighting, Victoria Esquivel sound, and Toby Reynolds’s props.

    Even though Segismundo develops feelings for Rosaura, he restores her honor at the end of Calderón’s play by requiring Astolpho to marry her. Rivera came up with a more satisfying ending for contemporary audiences.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Phillip Hamer
    Jayson Heil as Segismundo and Fabiola Cabrera as Rosaura in