Writer: Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translators: George Drance, Alfredo Galvàn, Magis Theatre Company
Directors: George Drance, Kelly Johnston
Reviewer: Adrienne Sowers
Pedro Calderón de la Barca wrote Life is a Dream in 1635, and then, for reasons that are historically challenging to trace, rewrote it in 1677. Moving from the world of courtly kingdoms to the creation of man, the themes of worthiness and atonement echo throughout both versions of the play. George Drance and Kelly Johnston ambitiously take on the daunting task of directing adapted translations of both, in repertory at La MaMa Theatre.
The plays are performed back-to-back with one ten-minute intermission between, making for a total length of just over three hours. It is a physically, vocally and stylistically demanding show by the very nature of the text, and an energetic and committed ensemble is to be commended for sustaining the energy and intention throughout the piece/s. There is spirited clarity in their work, highlighting humor amid the morality message and brightening what has the potential to be a rather didactic text.
The challenge with antiquated texts, at lengths beyond customary for contemporary audiences, is one of engagement. The latter half of the first iteration does this particularly well. It is engaging and charming, and incredibly clear in its execution – unlike Shakespeare, Calderón’s work is lesser known and therefore a pre-existing knowledge of the plot is not guaranteed. It struggles to find its feet in the early scenes of the play, not quite communicating surety in its own “-ness,” as it were. Once the play finds its footing, it leads the audience assuredly.
The second half of the experience is the 1677 version of Life is a Dream, a far more existential piece that may remind English-reading viewers of Everyman. The creation, downfall, and redemption of man is told through conceptual theatre, with puppets as deities and dancers as the elements. Understanding and Free Will are personified, and Man’s hubris is clear from the beginning. This play does not stand as well as its preceding counterpart, and the stylistic choices layered over a heady narrative make the action feel longer than it is. The text itself contains two or three false endings, which ring as such onstage. The puppetry and performances are solid, but as a whole, the latter Life is a Dream falls short of being as engaging as the former. It’s a rare experience to see both these texts in the same performance, and for some, the length and unevenness may detract from the timeless and compelling messages contained therein.
Runs until 26 February 2017