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Theater review: Life is a Dream

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At least nine translations and adaptations of Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca's most famous work, the pensive, philosophical LIFE IS A DREAM, have been published since 2000. That flood includes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz's 2007 attempt, currently on stage at Deep Dish Theater.

So much recent activity around a single work (after seven translations in the 20th century) suggests two things. Clearly, a range of playwrights have been captivated by Calderón, who sat at the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Spanish theater in the 1600s. And just as clearly, none of them believed the previous translators and adaptors got this ethical exploration into a precursor of radical skepticism exactly right.

Not that that's so easy. It can be much more difficult to convey the sensibilities of a foreign culture, place or time than its idioms or turns of phrase. A translator approaching Calderón has to find a way to adapt the elevated vision—and discourse—of a 17th-century scholar of religion and philosophy to a secular world he could not imagine. Then the piece must function in a theater.

Such difficulties become apparent early on in Cruz's effort. A lengthy first soliloquy by Segismundo (Alphonse Nicholson), a prince imprisoned from birth following the death of his mother, signals that we're in for an evening where characters answer all questions in disquisitions, not lines. What takes up so much verbal space? In one of the largest disconnects from contemporary aesthetics, emotions seem to exist only if the characters directly comment on them. Cruz's adaptation is riddled with emotional stage directions such as Rosaura's (Amber Wood) response to Segismundo, "I might seem astonished. But I'm quite moved by your words."

Understandably, director Marc Williams struggles to maintain dramatic momentum as his actors plow through pneumatic oratory. Wood gives the evening's most dimensional performance as a jilted woman seeking vengeance. Aside from a comic moment or two, Anne-Caitlin Donohue doesn't have much to do as potential queen Estrella, and Daniel Doyle's Astolfo remains underdeveloped. Both Peter Battis and John Boni are out of their depths in the roles of Clotaldo and King Basilio.

Lex van Blommestein's enigmatic, atmospheric set and Jenni Mann Becker's complementary lights establish a different, higher level of artistic achievement.

In reiterating Calderón's central conceit—that life is the dream we make of it—Cruz dilutes the point instead of reinforcing it. And when characters spend their time and ours over-explaining every emotional and intellectual element, a noted work of world literature remains problematic on the stage. Maybe the next translation will get it right.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Lost in translation"

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