Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday Afternoon in Prospect Park: A Festival of Fools presents Calderón 's "Life is a Dream" at the Music Pagoda

We were at the Music Pagoda in Prospect Park for the third Saturday afternoon this summer, and we were delighted with what we saw: a poetic, elegant and surprisingly bracing production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Spanish Golden Age drama, Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), by A Festival of Fools.

It's been ages since we read this play, first haltingly in Spanish, then in 1980, after we were a fellow at the MacDowell Colony along with poet Edwin Honig, we read his 1960s free verse translation. The play seemed interesting but contrived. The main plot concerns Segismund, who at birth is locked in a tower by his father, King Basil of Poland, as a Oedipus-like precaution against a seer's foreseen trouble, but suddenly this "human monster," first seen raging like an animal, is released, drugged, told he's a prince and observed to see how he responds.

Segismund immediately behaves like a tyrant, thoughtless and unbearably cruel. He's told it's all been a dream, wakes, sleepwalks, seems to dream more and in the end he comes to understand that all of life is a dream and makes a speech saying that whether you're awake or dreaming, you need to live as fully as you can. It's essentially a philosophical play, and there's a subplot involving Rosaura, a jilted lover who, like Segismund, has been cheated of her birthright, and a lot of complications involving thwarted and hoped-for romance and rival claimants to the throne of Poland.

On the page, we always found the plot confusing and pretty unbelievable although we took it as a metaphor, a philosophical argument disguised as a weird story. It's to the enormous credit of A Festival of Fools and this production's director, Amanda Thompson - and also in large part to the incredibly deft new translation (with gorgeous meter and natural rhyme) by LIU-Brooklyn professor G.J. Racz - that you don't think, "This makes no sense" as you watch the play.

Instead, you're just swept along with them in the utterly believable action.

The audience was crowded onto the floor of the first couple of steps on the music pagoda itself, while most of the action took place slightly above us; only in the last twenty minutes did we turn the other way, to the battles on the ground below. This was an excellent use of the facility but for us, it led to some uncomfortable neck craning as we looked upward to the actors much of the time. (We came to the play with a bad stiff neck that had kept us awake and on Advil the night before, so this might be just our problem.)

The troupe worked superbly together, but Tim Bungeroth was especially amazing as the fierce, savage Segismund as he raged, wailed, sneered, and slowly is transformed into a compassionate and philosophical ruler. It's a subtle performance.

As Rosaura, whom Segismund recognizes as something of a kindred spirit in both her initial disguise as a man and then later in womanly dress, Claire Nasuti is spirited but gentle, never letting her anger at her mistreatment at others' hands, entirely extinguish her ability to take small pleasures where she can find them.

Kaitlyn McGuire Huczko gets about ninety percent of the play's laughs as Clarion, clowning and joking and mugging, sprightly and cynical and cowardly - yet in the play's most ironic twist, the one character who seems all along to believe in life as a dream, as mere illusion, ends up its most tragic victim. This was a full-blooded performance that added a lot to the show.

As Basil, Quincy Ellis is splendidly good-natured and ineffectual even when he attempts to be a wise ruler; like the other characters, he's a foolish dreamer given to misinterpreting events and accepting them too easily at face value.

As his niece and nephew (from different sisters), the sometimes-suitors, sometime-rivals, Stella (Hannah Corrigan) and Rosaura's beytrayer Astolph, Duke of Moscow, manage also manage the difficult of feat of seeming noble and blockheaded at once.

Rounding out the main characters, Clotaldo, the king's loyal lieutenant, is played by Michael DeSantis, who lends the role grace and wisdom despite his somewhat unfathomable early cruelty to both Segismund and Rosaura.

As the lady in waiting and the hapless servants/soldiers, Ariel Francoeur, Sam Maxwell and David Rysdahl are all fine, more victims of the foolishness of the dream world - which is to say reality.

The fight choreorgraphy is the usual superb work of Jared Kirby, who also did most of the Hudson Warehouse productions we've seen; assisting Amanda Thompson as director is stage manager Ricky Hutchins; there was effective original music by Brian Kirchner and accompaniment by Teddy Lytle.

John Guare called Life is a Dream his favorite exploration of "the quintessential theme -- the human mind coming to consciousness" whose lesson is that "poetry is a visceral response to events, not some aerosol spray-on fantasy of fancy chat." With this production, A Festival of Fools manages to present Calderón's philosophical drama in a manner that highlights its magnificence as well as its entertainment value. La vida es sueño, de seguro.

You can appreciate this play without knowing all that much about it. You'll get it immediately. It will be at the Music Pagoda at 2 p.m. tomorrow and also next Saturday and the following Sunday.

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