'Life's a Dream': A Tangle of Tales Pleasingly Told

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In his first bow as a local director, the stylish young actor Alexander Strain has waded into the thicket of "Life's a Dream," the contemplative, complexly plotted drama by the 17th-century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca.

And though his production for four-year-old Journeymen Theater Ensemble wobbles at times in the effort to achieve a consistent tone, Strain proves to be a thoughtful shepherd of this challenging work. His pared-down visual style makes for an engaging presentation in the Church Street Theater, and the original music by Jesse Terrill confers on the proceedings a pleasing aspect of wistfulness.

Former (and current) high school and college students may recall having to translate parts of "La Vida Es Sueño" in Spanish class. It's probably the best known of Calderón's plays, and with such plot devices as women disguising themselves as men and clowns uncovering tragic truths, the piece inevitably brings to mind some of the plays of Shakespeare. The resentful, rough-hewn prince, subjected to harsh, lifelong confinement by his father, is, for example, more than a little reminiscent of the unfortunate Caliban of Shakespeare's "Tempest."

Strain's notion is to highlight the tall-tale dimension of "Life's a Dream." Calderón's work is equal parts costume epic and rumination on the intricate interplay of illusion and reality. The dominant feature of Tobias Harding's simple set delicately suggests a world framed by stories told in the night: nine large, illuminated stars dangle ornamentally over the stage, which is dotted with painted arches, faintly Moorish in appearance.

The director's design is in keeping with a fantastical Poland in which Calderón locates the action. Much in the style of an elaborate dream, the play spins stories within stories, the most far-fetched being that of Polish King Basilio (Jim Jorgensen), who manacles his heir Sigismund (Eric Messner), imprisons him in a tower and never tells the son he's a prince. Into the realm marches the headstrong Rosaura (Maggie Glauber), a young Muscovite dressed as a man in order to surprise the aristocratic rogue Astolfo (Theo Hadjimichael), who promised her his hand and then abandoned her.

The wronged Rosaura, like the tormented Sigismund, becomes enmeshed in an internal struggle between vengeance and mercy. It's only after each comes to an understanding of grace that the answers are supplied to the mysteries of their own nobility and what the other characters truly mean to them. These include Clotaldo (Brian Crane), Sigismund's jailer, as well as the king's niece Estrella (Lindsay Haynes), whose appetite for the crown propels her into an alliance with her cousin Astolfo.

With the additional ingredient of a clown named Clarion (Rex Daugherty), you have the possibility of a rather overburdened Polish-Spanish stew. But the rhyming adaptation by translators John Barton and Adrian Mitchell makes the digressive philosophizing -- there is more than enough of Sigismund reflecting on the dream-vs.-reality question -- fairly easy to digest. And Strain, so convincing as the title character in Washington Shakespeare Company's recent mounting of "Caligula," smartly steers this enterprise down a lighthearted channel. Costume designer Yvette M. Ryan aids greatly in this effort, with a wardrobe out of some handsome rendition of a cartoon kingdom.

The only major difficulty faced here is keeping all the actors on the same dramatic trajectory. Sometimes, lines are delivered to telegraph that a laugh is on the way, which takes you out of "Life's a Dream" and onto the soundstage of that new Calderón sitcom, "Life's a Riot!" This tendency, more pronounced with some actors than others, complicates the job especially for the hard-working Daugherty, who in the tough role of the fool has to work too hard to be funnier than everyone else. And nothing makes a joke harder to sell than when the salesman is compelled to exaggerate his pitch.

The production gives the most value when actors simply address each other conversationally. The sturdiest moments for the solid Glauber and Messner are the scenes in which Rosaura and Sigismund merely show themselves to be engaged in a quiet quest for self-knowledge. Crane, too, brings a welcome warmth to the role of a seeming bystander at court who turns out to have as much at stake as anyone. At its best, this "Life's a Dream" allows us to gaze into a fairy tale and see humanity in the reflection.

Life's a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, adapted by John Barton and Adrian Mitchell. Directed by Alexander Strain. Lighting, Andrew Griffin; fight choreography, Chris Niebling. With Mary C. Davis, Andrew Vergara Retizos. About two hours. Through Feb. 2 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit

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