Are we here right now? And if we are, can we trust what we see before us?
The idea of life as a complete or occasional dream state isn't new — it goes back millennia, stretching through Mahayana Buddhism to the ancient Greeks and into the Renaissance. In the past few decades, the idea that perceived reality is in fact a quantum computer simulation has gained a lot of cachet, too.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves here; let us return to the 17th century in what's known as the Spanish Golden Age. It's then that live theater thrived on the Iberian Peninsula, when Pedro Calderón de la Barca wrote Life is a Dream, now staged, with a youthful cast and spirit, at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Calderón's play, written and first performed in 1635, took place in Poland and what was then the Grand Duchy of Muskovy, but director Elio Robles has set the production in the manner and dress of 17th century Spain. At its center is a story central to many European plays of the era: the transfer of dynastically held royal power.
Events begin with two travelers, Rosaura (Andrea Carrillo), who is disguised as a man, and Clarin (Jeremy Stolp), arriving at a prison tower to find a miserable man bound in chains. The man is Segismundo (Victor Parra) and we come to learn that he has been jailed simply for the crime of being born, held under the eye of Clotaldo (Andrew Hempstead). Although it may not be clear in the first act, the main overall drama at the heart of Life is a Dream is the story of Segismundo and Rosura. The reason behind her guise as a man is a desire to control her own destiny — a central theme of the play — and to regain her own honor.
Clotaldo takes Rosaura and Clarin into custody, but recognizes a sword in her possession as one that once belonged to him. Thinking she is male, Clotaldo believes that she might be his son. The action then shifts to the court of King Basilo (Jesse Chavez), where it is revealed that he had been warned decades before that his son will be born a violent, ruthless maniac, and so banished him to the tower forever. He reveals this secret to his niece Estrella (Michelle Purnell) and nephew Astolfo (Garrett Vallejo) on the eve of Clotaldo arriving with Rosaura and Clarin.
This sets in motion the king's decision to have his son freed and brought to the court, where he proposes to test his abilities as a potential heir to the throne. First, he orders that Segismundo be drugged nearly to death. Segismundo arrives at the palace convinced that either his past time in chains has been a horrible dream or perhaps the present is a dream escape from his captivity.
In addition to the themes of father-son conflict and court intrigue that blossom into full war by the play's end, Segismundo's pondering on the state of what is real — and whether one's actions in what's perceived to be a dream have echoes in reality — is at the heart of the play.
This is not as obtuse and inaccessible as it may sound, for Calderón was a great playwright of his time, a peer of Cervantes with a poet's gift for psychological insights. Life is a Dream manages to be entertaining while deftly moving through such ideas as fate, determinism undermining free will, gender roles and men subjugating women.
That is a lot to weave into a story but, under Robles' direction, things move along at a good clip. And while some of the internecine royal court activity slackens matters, it gives way to Segismundo and Rosura meeting and becoming more revealed to one another in the next act, focusing the story. A Humboldt State University alum with experience as an actor in Radioman last year at Dell'Arte, Robles is well-suited to helm this production, which is excellently costumed by Megan Hughes.
As Segismundo, Parra has the best role and builds well on his previous role at NCRT in last season's Native Gardens, bringing spark and soul-searching to a man often at odds with reality and existence. Like most of the young cast in Life is a Dream, he has a pedigree from HSU Theater Arts Department productions. This also includes the very good Carrillo in her NCRT debut as Rosaura, as well as Stolp and Vallejo in adept supporting performances.
Life is A Dream blends elements of a fairy tale with a larger morality tale, offering much to ponder about reality, free will and the value of honor. As for how much of the world we perceive is truly real, that's perhaps an answer for another time.
North Coast Repertory Theatre's Life is a Dream plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Feb. 8, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Feb. 9. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncert.net.
David Jervis is an Arcata-based freelance writer and editor. He prefers he/him pronouns.
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