La Vida es Sueño, but Not Necessarily a Good One

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“Let this strange spectacle be used as an example,” Segismundo tells the audience towards the end of the recent rendition of Calderón de la Barca’s play, La vida es sueño, at Culture Project on March 30th. The show, produced by Puy Navarro and directed by Cecil MacKinnon, marketed itself as “a pro-human rights theatrical event, inspired by Honorable Judge Balthasar Garzón’s 2005/06 lectures at NYU.” It claims the original text of the 17th-century play mirrors themes prevalent in the crises of our time, but the example this production presented the audience probably wasn’t what the producers intended. The idea held promise, but the self-termed “virtual poem” held no water.
In fact, this production turned one of the most elegant and philosophical plays in history into a sloppy farce, and a brilliant Judge, renowned for his crusades against human-rights abusers, into the most shallow of minds. And it dragged Amnesty International into the mess.
To start, the multi-media facets of the production consisted of a normal stage play and a large, off-center projection screen hanging from the ceiling that showed, occasionally, video clips intended to build a bridge between the 17th-century play and 20th-century reality. The audience first sees video of a computer screen as someone (Estrella) types an e-mail. The device never returns. The next “virtual” element is a video of the White House to help equate the king in the play – dressed in presidential suit and tie – with whom? George W. Bush? George H.W. Bush? U.S. President X? Then we see a still shot of the Oval Office with the actor playing the king superimposed so poorly that I remember seeing better work on the student-run TV station my kid brother worked on in middle school in the early ’90s.
When two characters wander through the desert on stage, the screen shows random footage of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and being caught by U.S. authorities. When imprisoned prince, Segismundo, enters the stage, chained to the wall, we see footage of prisoners at Guantanamo. Later, as black-clad, modern-looking revolutionaries take the stage and Segismundo declares that he “will free you from foreign servitude” by going to war against his father, we see video footage of the current war in Iraq.
To say the production stretches to make these connections would be a mild assessment – if they came out with clear conclusions, but they do not do even that. If the king is a modern U.S. president and his son may also be king – seems to imply the Bushes. But then Segismundo is both George W. Bush (whom he slightly resembles physically here) and a Guantanamo prisoner? And tries to nobly defend his land from foreign rule? And his men are dressed in black clothes and ski masks like modern revolutionaries or death squads? Are we supposed to like him or not? Without clarity, they’re just saying that stuff is like other stuff. What’s the use in that? And what justice do these shallow and feeble references do for those causes they purport to champion?
The choices in the production’s more traditional elements do nothing to help the confusion. The acting is mostly terrible and hints that the actors were attempting some sort of stylizations that came across as cheap buffoonery most of the time. Allyn Burrows (Segismundo) obviously has the ability to do excellent stage work, as evidenced in his few simple moments and his facility with language (and his resumé), but he spends much of the play screaming or goofing around in some sort of failed Three Stooges style. Puy Navarro (Rosaura) does the most precise of the stylized performances, has obvious talent, and engages the audience, but why insert the over-the-top Telemundoesque comedian-chica in a tight dress, big hair, and heels? Ephraim López (Clarín) had some interesting physical skills, and his quiet farewell speech was adorably splendid; but, he, too, spent much of the play leaping, screaming, and mugging. The tall and striking Francisco Reyes (Astolfo) was human and funny and alive in his first appearance, but he was totally dead inside in his second scene. And James Gale as Clotaldo (the king) looked terribly uncomfortable. He was stiff, seemed to attempt gesture that he failed to incorporate into himself (including that Clinton thumb thing), and had trouble with his lines. In short, the actors never became people on stage and seemed to have no point in failing to do so. It felt like they were mocking the play, a useful tool in some cases, forgiveable in others, but unforgiveable here with such a great text and claiming important causes.
The crowning offense came in Segismundo’s immortal speech, the splendid centerpiece of the play, in which he tries to reconcile the two realities he has lived – life imprisoned in the tower and life in the country’s throne. It started off well. Burrows stopped screaming. He really seemed to experience something. But “the text”, as Shakespeare’s Goneril says in King Lear, “is foolish.” The translation they used here struck this little Spanish Lit. major a blow to the heart. It lacked all the poetry, rhythm, and beauty of the original. And then the sentimental music kicked in overhead, destroying everything.
The most successful element of MacKinnon’s conception comes with the use of language. Some of the characters speak English only, and some switch smoothly between English and Spanish without warning or subtitles, which provides for some funny moments and actually bridges the past and present in a way the other less subtle methods do not.
“How is it possible to cram so many things into one dream?” Segismundo asks towards the end of the play. One could ask the same of this production. Calderón de la Barca had the answer. This “theatrical event” did not.