Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sueño
Pangea World Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Bacchae and Interstate


Fernando Collado and Nicolas Sullivan
Photo by Bruce Silcox
When Pangea World Theater decided to stage Sueño, adapted by José Rivera from Spanish playwright and poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca's classic play La vida es sueño, the company knew that this 384-year-old play from Spain's "Golden Age" holds relevance to the world today. Calderón addresses the question of whether human lives are predestined or can be altered by interventions, along with musings on such timeless questions as human ambition, the culpability of those who "only follow orders," the nature of father-son relationships, our impulse to exact revenge, and our potential for mercy and forgiveness.

But not even Pangea's sage leadership could have anticipated the onset of a global pandemic that would put Sueño in a context where only by taking concerted actions for the good of all, and setting aside national self-interest and cultural arrogance, can we hope to prevail. As we are told this week to stay six feet apart from our fellow humans, to avoid groups of more than ten, and to take other preventative measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, how much weight will those interventions have in altering the course of a force beyond the understanding of most of us? Were Calderón alive today, the pandemic might inspire him to draft a sequel that picks up where La vida es sueño leaves off.

The play's overriding theme is how we distinguish between reality and illusion. Sueño, is Spanish for "dream," and Calderón's original title translates to "life is a dream." Twenty-five years before the play's beginning, Basilio, King of Spain, imprisoned his newborn son, Prince Segismundo, to avert a prophecy made before the prince's birth. It said that the lad would grow up to be a wretched tyrant and destroy the kingdom. Upon Segismundo's twenty-fifth birthday, Basilio decides to release him from the isolated tower to which he had been confined to see what kind of man he has become. The King has his son drugged, brought to the palace, and upon his awakening, tells him that he is truly a prince and heir to the throne. If he responds with graciousness befitting a monarch, the crown will be his. If he behaves as the seer predicted, with violence and loathing, he will once more be given the drug, brought back to the tower and, upon re-awakening, be told that his memory of having been a prince and having been in the royal palace was merely a dream.

How would Segismundo know the difference? By what measure could he be certain that he had been awake at the palace and not in an extended dream state, occurring as it did between two episodes of heavy, drug-induced sleep? How do we know, when a crisis of unprecedented (at least in our lifetimes) proportion occurs, that this world-wide pandemic is reality and not a dream from which we hope to awake? If there is something awaiting us beyond this life, might that not be reality and this be merely an illusion that we must pass through?

Calderón took pleasure in setting up situations that call for heavy doses of thought and speculation, all very present in Rivera's adaptation. Rivera is a prolific playwright in his own right, with two Obie awards (Marisol and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot), and a successful screenwriter, earning an Oscar nomination for The Motorcycle Diaries. In Sueño, which premiered in 1998, he adhered to Calderón's basic plot, but changed Basilio's domain from Poland to Spain, switched around a pair of romantic pairings, and streamlined the original three acts into two. Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up on Long Island, New York, also updated some of Calderón's dialogue to place it in a more contemporary western mindset, without losing any of the beautifully poetic language for which Calderón was noted.

In addition to the central conflict regarding Segismundo's nature—is he inherently a bad man as predicted by the seer, or is he inherently good but victimized by twenty-five years of imprisonment, and therefore not responsible for his behavior?—several subplots kept the play lively and engaging. The Duke of Warsaw and a Princess Estrella conspire to usurp the throne with a marriage of convenience; a young woman, Rosaura, disguised as a man, comes from afar to take revenge on the man who stole her honor and then abandoned her; and the young woman's servant, Clarin, serves much the same function as the fool in Shakespeare's plays—lowly, but wise, clearly discerning the truth that eludes others.

This production of Sueño was enthralling from opening scene to the last, with turns of thrilling swordplay and battle scenes (props to violence and intimacy choreographer David P. Schneider), heartwrenching drama, broad humor, and a dollop of romance. Directed with a seamless flow by Leslie Ishii, the narrative kept us wondering how things would turn out, much as does our current dilemma. Ishii made good use of the vast space at the Lab Theater, keeping most of the action focused in the center, while judiciously having actors on the periphery to pique our interest.

Fernando Collado has been seen on many of our leading stages—the Guthrie, the Ordway, Theatre Latté Da, Chanhassen among them—in the ensemble or featured roles, but here broke out as the central character, Segismundo. Collado projected brutal rage, bitter sarcasm, maddening self-doubts, probing inquiry, and magnanimous forgiveness with complete confidence and authenticity. This performance should pave the way for us to see Collado much more often in the future. Equally impressive was Adlyn Carreras as Clarin, the clown-like servant who kept us laughing, yet was the clearly the smartest person in the room.

Ankita Ashrit was wonderful as Rosaura. She was full of swagger and determination in her male disguise and equally strong as a woman who could hold her own during intense conflict. Pedro R. Bayón was a noble figure as Basilio, conveying the excessive pride that caused him to try to derail the astrologer's prophecy. Ernest Briggs projected the kind heart of the king's advisor Clotaldo, who was Segismundo's caretaker and teacher over those twenty-five years in the tower. Nicolas "Sully" Sullivan and Katia Cardenas were smashing as Astolfo and Estrella, respectively, conveying the characters' deceitfulness while milking the comedy written into the roles.

Lighting designer Mike Grogan and sound designer Eric Gonzalez used their mediums to create the feeling of a distinct world being depicted on stage, with Joel Sass's simple but effective set serving the production well, with its central inlay of the astrological wheel, a raised platform for Segismundo's tower, and movable screens of medieval Spanish wrought iron creating rooms, corridors, and other enclosed spaces. Mary Ann Kelling designed costumes that fully established the period, the social rank of each character, and the aesthetics of Spain's Golden Age.

At the end of Sueño, two exchanges were out of synch with its overall feel, which, while clearly set in the sixteenth century Spain, was updated so that its issues felt pertinent to our lives today. First, a man tells a woman that, though he loves her, they cannot marry because she is of a lower social class. Couldn't Rivera's update have tried to show the male character resisting that convention? Then, Rosaura, after hunting down the man who betrayed her, seems all too willing to forgive a man who has done comparable harm to another. Some ambivalence in her response was anticipated, but we saw none of that.

As for the production, early on Basilio's wife died giving birth to Segismundo, and a candlelight vigil was held. The Lab Theater's house manager, at that point, led a line of audience members who had been seated far to one side through the stage, where each took a glance at the lit candles, some aping an expression of sorrow, others just looking rather awkward, and then took seats reserved for them in the front row. Those would-be mourners, not in costume and looking more curious than sorrowful, did not add anything, and felt like an interruption of the play. This was a short interlude, and the play quickly regained its vigor, but whatever this gambit was meant to convey was lost, at least on me.

So, Sueño was not perfect. Still, it was wonderful, a sterling production of an important but rarely seen classic play, in an adaptation that made it accessible and wholly engaging. This was one of the best productions I have seen from Pangea World Theater and a reminder of why they, like so many of our small companies, especially those with a distinctive mission, deserve our ongoing support.

The run of Sueño was cut short, along with many other fine productions in the Twin Cities, due to the Covid-19 virus. Many other eagerly awaited shows will never open. It behooves those of us who love theater to do our part, large or small, to support these companies that so enrich our lives by contributing to make up for lost ticket sales. Most of the expenses for these productions have already been incurred - costumes and sets built, marketing materials printed, actors and musicians rehearsed, and so on, and the operating costs of maintaining a theater company continue, even during a shut down. We want these theater companies back, as robust as ever, when the time comes that the curtains can rise and the lights once again shine on our treasured stages.

Sueño, a Pangea World Theater production, at The Lab Theater, 700 1st Street North, Minneapolis MN. Scheduled through March 22, 2020, but due to the coronavirus, played its last performance March 15, 2020. For information call 612-333-7977 or visit pangeaworldtheater.org.

Translation and Adaptation: José Rivera, based on the play La Vida es Sueño by Pedro Calderón de la Barca ; Director: Leslie Ishii; Assistant Director: Sir Curtis Kirby III; Set Design: Joel Sass; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Sound Design: Eric Gonzalez; Costume Design: Mary Ann Knelling; Assistant Costume Designer: Laura Jones; Violence and Intimacy Choreographer: David P Schneider; Stage Manager: Suzanne Victoria Cross; Assistant Stage Manager: Johanna Keller Flores.

Cast: Pedro R. Bayón (Basilio), Ernest Briggs (Clotaldo), Ankita Ashrit (Rosaura), Adlyn Carreras (Clarin), Fernando Collado (Segismundo), Nicolas Sullivan (Astolfo), Katia Cardenas (Estrella), Keila Anali Saucedo (soldier/ensemble), Amarkirat Singh (soldier/ensemble)


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