Life Is a Dream | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Life Is a Dream 

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Magellan Theatre

at the Upstage Theatre

Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca died over 300 years ago and is today remembered primarily by academics. This intriguing figure, who wrote nearly 200 plays in his 81 years, dealt with abstract and sometimes controversial ideas not often found in the dramatic literature of any age. In his secular plays (he finished his career as a priest writing sacred dramas) he often delivered a pointed moral message not only through dialogue and setting but by controlling all the elements of stagecraft, even costuming. The young Magellan Theatre has mounted an accessible, effective production of his seldom-staged classic Life Is a Dream, complementing Calderon's writing with a well-rounded production.

Prince Segismundo has been imprisoned like an animal from birth. His father, Basilio, is a self-proclaimed sage who believes Segismundo has a savage nature that would create horrible suffering if he became king. Finally accepting the possibility that he may be wrong, Basilio strikes upon a plan to test the prince's self-control. He drugs Segismundo and makes him head of state. When Segismundo, bitter and enraged over his wrongful imprisonment, starts to take revenge, he's returned to his cell and told that his freedom and power were all a dream. This makes him question the very nature of human existence. A subplot revolves around Rosaura, a young woman who arrives at the court to avenge the honor she lost to Astolfo, nephew of the king and second heir to the throne, after Segismundo: her quest for revenge and Segismundo's struggle are interwoven.

Director Jeremy Wechsler keeps the play from sinking into exaggeration with a straightforward and imaginative staging, transforming the tiny studio space into the play's varied locations with terrific simplicity. Segismundo's miserable cell becomes the royal court without the aid of a single set piece or any clumsy indication on the part of the actors: Wechsler merely uses Calderon's masterful language to great dramatic effect. In the first scene dangerous mountain crags are conjured in all their awesome and terrible detail by actors who mount the risers along a narrow aisle between seats.

A great deal of the production's success is attributable to the likable, talented cast. Joseph Wycoff's portrayal of Segismundo is mesmerizing, full of humor and emotion, humanizing the play's message. After being thrown back into his cell, Wycoff delivers Segismundo's meditation on reality not as a Dramatic Speech but as the hard-earned wisdom of a beaten man. Crystal Barnes is fine as Rosaura, showing strength and conviction in her confrontations with the charming, conniving Astolfo, equally well handled by Tom Dobrocky.

Overall the design of the show is commendable. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes establish the historical tone and various settings: guards, ladies of the court, and the king are outfitted with attention to detail, but Blumenfeld avoids encumbering the performers--the actors wear the costumes, the costumes don't wear the actors. Julio Pedota's lighting and David Wechsler's percussion also serve the production without drawing attention to themselves. The combined effect is best displayed in a tableau during the prologue, when stylized lighting, a musical theme for each character, and impressive masks establish the story.


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