For the last mumblety-ought years, thread_walker
and I have gotten season tickets to Cal Shakes
, the summer outdoor theater series held just the east side of the Hwy 24 tunnel in Orinda. One aspect of being a regular season ticket buyer is that I don't necessarily take a close look at what the specific plays will be. (I just make sure I have a calendar alert to remind me of the dates!) So when I saw that last evening's play would be something called "Life is a Dream", I confess I winced a little, assuming it was going to be one of those neurotic '40s or '50s suburban dude-plays.
ha ha ha ha ha
Somewhere around 1629, the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca
composed a work on the themes of predestination versus free will, inherent nobility versus socialization, conflicts of loyalty, a mild (and unfortunately transient) commentary on gender roles, and how one should behave with respect to the subjective nature of reality. This version of "Life is a Dream" (La vida es sueño)
was translated and adapted by Cuban-American Pulizer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz
Like the Greek tale of Oedipus, a king attempts to avoid the dire fate predicted for his son by rather drastic means and, in doing so, precipitates the very event he's trying to prevent. Unlike for Oedipus, both father and son survive to see the fate realized and then subverted in a way that allows a positive ending (in the context of the times). And unlike the usual reading of Oedipus, in which the message is, "Ha, ha, you can't trick the gods!" the message here is a more subtle, "Our measures to prevent a event may instead cause it."
King Basilio places a great deal of reliance on astrological predictions, so when a prophecy claims that his about-to-be-born son will be a monster who destroys the kingdom, the newborn is imprisoned in a mountain hideaway, his only companion the nobleman Clotaldo as jailor and tutor. The boy, Segismundo has grown to adulthood frustrated and despondent at his imprisonment and at not knowing the reason for it (or his own identity). Now the time is coming to choose an heir to the throne and the children of Basilio's two sisters -- Astolfo and Estrella -- have traveled from their home realms to compete for the position.
Estrella (played as a savvy, don't-mess-with-me politician and woman who knows her own mind by the stunningly gorgeous Tristan Cunningham) claims precedence as the child of the elder sister. Astolfo (more of an arrogant self-centered playboy, though a valiant soldier, played by Amir Abdullah in his Cal Shakes debut) claims precedence as a man. Yup, that's exactly what he says: you may technically be the more direct heir but I'm a guy and that should trump it. But Astolfo, seeing that he needs a bit more than that to succeed, suggests another option: the two cousins should marry, thereby making any sort of choice between them moot. Estrella plays along but (by winks and nods, so it isn't clear how much of this is in the original text) is unconvinced that she needs or would benefit by the stratagem. Furthermore, it's a sore point for her that Astolfo carries the portrait of an old girlfriend hidden under his doublet.
But I get ahead of myself. The play opens with two travelers stumbling across the imprisoned prince and being deeply touched by his plight. Rosaura, disguised as a man, has traveled to this realm bearing her unknown father's sword to find and avenge herself against the man who seduced and betrayed her. The man who to this day bears her portrait in a locket around his neck. Yep, you guessed it: Astolfo. (The second traveler is her Comic Servant, who will, at various points in the play, pass through being almost everyone's Comic Servant.)
The prince's jailor Clotaldo discovers the travelers and captures them, for his orders are than anyone who knows of the prince's existence must be sent to the king for execution. But when Rosaura (still in disguise) surrenders her sword to him...what is this? He knows this sword! This is the sword he left with his pregnant lover when he abandoned her many years before with a promise to return. (Rosaura deserves to have lots of abandonment issues.) I suppose the fact that he was appointed as a jailor/tutor in a remote location just might possibly explain his failure to return and make an honest woman of Rosaura's mother.
Torn between his duty to the king and his devotion to this previously unknown son (as he supposes), Clotaldo agonizes but then brings his prisoners to court. The anguish of this decision is erased because King Basilio has decided to give his exiled son one last (heck, one first
) chance before choosing a different heir. Having announced the existence of Prince Segismundo to the court, the need to execute people who know of him no longer applies. Segismundo will be brought to court and installed as king to see if he rises to the occasion, in which case he will rule. But in what is intended as a mercy, in the event that he fails the test and must be imprisoned again, he will first be drugged for the journey so that the entire episode can be dismissed as a dream if necessary. (Hence the title.)
Somewhere in here, Rosaura's original gender is revealed and she becomes lady in waiting to Estrella. There is comic hide-and-seek to prevent her from encountering Astolfo, but eventually they confront each other when Estrella assigns her to retrieve the mystery portrait from Astolfo (which he'd promised to hand over to Estrella as proof that the woman meant nothing to him). In a complex confrontation, she tells Estrella that Astolfo has stolen her own portrait of herself to tease her and she wants it back, but that he still has the portrait of the mystery woman. The purpose behind this seems to be to continue to conceal her previous relationship with Astolfo from everyone else, either for the sake of her reputation of simply because she has her own plans for vengeance. But more of that later.
Segismundo, set on the throne and crowned and told he is the rightful ruler by virtue of being King Basilio's son, throws a major temper tantrum at how unjustly he's been treated all his life. The power goes to his head and he kills one man and threatens others. (Sean San José does an excellent portrayal of an out-of-control man-child in the midst of an emotional melt-down.) But in the midst of all this, he also re-meets Rosaura (not realizing she's the same person as the traveler) and has one of those "OMG, I've never seen a woman before in my life, but I instantly know I'm supposed to fall in love with them" moments. Well, ok, the first
time he has this reaction is on meeting Estrella. He falls all over her, making her rather uncomfortable and Astolfo decidedly unsettled. But then he re-meets Rosaura and Estrella is replaced in his heart. (Or other body part.)
The whole "temper tantrum and killing people arbitrarily" thing is quite reasonably interpreted by King Basilio as proving that the prophecy was correct. He has Segismundo drugged again and returned to his prison, where Clotaldo convinces him that the whole episode had only been a dream. He ruminates on this idea for a while but eventually accepts it.
Now things get complicated. King Basilio's army, now knowing that there's a local (and--by the usual rules--more legitimate) heir to the throne available, rebel against the idea of handing the kingdom off to a foreigner (Astolfo/Estrella in any combination) and muster themselves to the mountain prison to free Segismundo and set him at the forefront of a revolution. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that now Segismundo is utterly confused as to what is reality and what is a dream. Somewhere in here, Clotaldo has had a heart-to-heart talk with him about the importance of doing right and being a good person even in dreams, to say nothing of reality. In the least plausible twist of the plot, this lesson sticks, and when the tables are now turned, Segismundo declines to execute his jailor and instead lets him return to the king.
Astolfo and Basilio are leading the loyal troops out to meet him. Rosaura seizes this as her chance to avenge herself on Astolfo and goes to join the prince, now presenting in a hybrid gender with technically female clothing (though masculine in style) but carrying her sword once more. She even makes a little speech to Segismundo about how "you met me three times: once as a man, once as a woman, and now as both/neither." (It should come as no surprise to anyone that in my private universe, Rosaura is the true hero of the play. Having been injured within a strongly female-gendered framework, i.e., that of the seduced and abandoned lover, she rejects the need for masculine assistance and claims the male privilege of setting out on her own to seek her vengeance using masculine tools and in masculine guise.)
At this point, there was an unscheduled intermission in the play. It had been drizzling all evening (outdoor theater, remember) and though never enough to provoke cancellation, they determined that safety required mopping off the stage before the climactic sword-fighting scene. They ran out of dry towels before Mother Nature ran out of rain, so in the end the remaining action scenes were all done in slow motion, which was actually a rather pleasing effect. Our play now resumes.
The armies meet and King Basilio is defeated, finding himself in the prophesied position of kneeling at his son's feet and at his mercy. Fortunately, mercy is at hand. Prince Segismundo has decided that free will is stronger than fate and that he can choose to be a good man and a good king after all. To tidy up the plot threads, he redeems Rosaura's honor by the traditional expedient of marrying her himself. As an almost offhand symmetry, he decrees that Astolfo and Estrella will marry as well, though the marriage is no longer strategic for them. And Estrella is acted as finding this expedient tiresome, if not actually distasteful. (Much eye-rolling occurs.)
Oh, and the Comic Servant? The only on-stage casualty of the war. In trying to hide from the combat, he places himself exactly where a stray bullet lands, thus getting to do his own speech about how our actions to escape fate only serve to bring us to meet it.
The philosophic themes in the play are deep and intricate. (The dramaturgist's lecture before the show gave some of the political background of the times, and there are interesting echos there as well.) The gender themes have some interesting echos with some of the analysis I've been reading in various early modern sources for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project (particularly the work of Lanser and Traub). The resolution is unsatisfying and stereotypical for the times, as might be expected. In essence, the women end up being door prizes for the men, after having a taste of being characters with power and agency of their own. What can you do? (Oh, wait, you can write your own stories, that's what you can do.)
Cal Shakes has once again done wonders with a small, tight cast and minimal staging. Several favorite actors returned from previous seasons but half the cast were new to the company for this performance. And kudos to both the company and the audience for sticking it out in the rain!