by Sophia Romma
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in association with Magis Theatre presented a surreal Sunday Matinee performance on February 12 of Calderon’s Two Dreams to a bustling audience seemingly hungry for the ardor and tempestuous intrigue of William Shakespeare laced with a dose of rhythmic Moliere. The musicians, played with bravado to music by Elizabeth Swados, in shades of alluring Flamenco accompanying melancholy scenes with sensuous sounds of the Renaissance; reminiscent of “Dances from Terpsichore” by Michael Praetorius. The play commenced with a dance by the ensemble of actors outfitted in period garb. After the Greek Muse of Dance ventured to touch our souls; the set was staged as if to entertain with delight princely tables and pompous banquets. Alas, toccatas and canzonas for violins yielded to a lone naked man, captive in shackles, enslaved by King Basilio, played in metered demeanor but rather unconvincingly by Dennis Vargas.
As the sultry sun burns a hole in the synthetic stage sky, with hazy mountains of blue looming heavy in the background; the hero and at the same time his feuding foil, the demonic Segismundo, who is literally and physically on fire, exclaims: “But I who have more life, who have more breath, have less liberty. My insane eyes keep looking. I was born human but the fish and the fowl have more freedom.” I will tear myself to pieces!”Segismundo is comparable to a modern Damien from The Omen. In fact, it is an oracle which forewarns that if the wise King Basilio does not shun his own flesh and blood from the world of the Court, Segismundo’s sword shall slay the one who gave him life, unravel the uncouth mundane routine of Basilio’s “civil” kingdom and reap the benefits for none other than himself—the conquering villain.
Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream written in the 17th Century is hailed as Spain’s Hamlet. It’s safe to say that while Hamlet and Macbeth’s Lady worship the verses of immeasurable disdain for the ultra-sane and cradle the penitent insane in the penumbra of mad words descending from the heavens like bitter tears of the pious; this production did not delve into the deep. I mean that wicked deep from whence all dreams emerge and are extinguished by the menace of Humbert Humbert from Lolita.
In reference to directorial style, the blunder of pollinating the stage with stooges who mimic revolutionary renegades as they save the banished Prince is a theatre faux pas. In fact, it is pure nonsense to haul actors on sidelines like cheerleaders awaiting a signaled appearance. Nonetheless, the main action packed excitement created by the ethereal leading lady, Margi Sharp Douglas who birthed enough sarcasm to swallow the unfathomably mushy romance and the honorably noble and steadfast King’s keeper, Clotaldo, played by the versatile wordsmith, Gabriel Portuondo are worth the entertainment. Furthermore, the seamless agile portrayal of the Court Jester by Erika Iverson, who plays Horn, a deceitful traitor to all who lend their ears to gossip, provides much of the absent comic relief in this Chekhovian melodrama of the sullen monarchy and their absurdly bitter escapades. Gilbert Molina as Segismundo, with his tiny frame, aims at power in his projection of transforming from beast to rational, sympathetic man—but he defeats his own purpose, often running amok on stage, emerging from eerie dreams, slipping into uncontrollable fits of anger and then ascending to elation at the sight of Rosaura who is the epitome of Love. Segismundo worships Rosaura’s beauty yet succumbs to insanity at the hands of this ravishing tomboyish woman who knows how to slice hearts open with a sword and is actually in love with the Duke of Polonia. Astolfo, who is labeled in the playbill as “free will” behaves like a cuckold and it’s difficult to believe that this is the weak man who by making a union with his cousin, Estrella, whom he doesn’t love in earnest, shall inherit the Kingdom and set the stage right.
Calderon’s two vignettes examine pride, power, betrayal, chivalry, yet above all, the denial of one’s precious birthright. Sadly, Segismundo is not the spiritual contorted Hamlet. He is more of the tormented Ophelia and the blood-thirsty Dame Macbeth. Segismundo does come to his senses in the end: “Even in our dreams we must not preside over what’s right.” He relinquishes the sword and pardons his father for enslaving him to prevent a prophecy. There is a moral unveiled: “life is a dream, a frenzy, a fiction.” Temperance, the conquering of one’s own ambitions, perhaps that ought to be our divine vision—the art of acceptance, tolerance, and never losing sight of what is right.
Calderon’s Two Dreams runs Feb.10-26 at the Ellen Steward Theatre at La MaMa (66 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and The Bowery). www.lamama.org