That’s partly because Rosaura displays such spunkiness in Calderón’s fable, seen here in a faithful world premiere adaptation by Nando López (GALA’s Helen Hayes Award-winning “Yerma”). But mostly it’s because, in director Hugo Medrano’s production — performed in Spanish, with English surtitles — the role is played with range and naturalness by Soraya Padrao. Whether she’s wielding a sword or sinking to the floor beneath the weight of emotion or cannily manipulating an adversary while fluttering a deceptively flirtatious fan, this Rosaura is an appealing figure who seems fully alive in the world of the play.
Her spontaneity contrasts with the rather calcified proceedings around her: Medrano, GALA’s producing artistic director, hasn’t succeeded in integrating an extemporaneous vibe into the play’s scenes, which tell of rebellion, romantic intrigue and dizzying philosophical soul-searching in the realm of Basilio (Timothy Andrés Pabon). Alarmed by a prophecy that his son will be a tyrant and usurper, Basilio has kept Segismundo (Daniel Alonso de Santos) locked away in a cell since infancy. When the king belatedly attempts to test the prediction by releasing the adult prince, all hell breaks loose — but is nature or nurture at fault? And when Segismundo is told that his previous experience was a dream, might this assertion contain truth?
Calderón’s play careens through the world of ideas — pondering such matters as fate, free will, ethical choice, gender roles and the nature of duty — but in the GALA production, the physical storytelling is more cramped. The blocking is formal, with the actors often in stand-and-speechify mode. Adding to the aura of artifice are some stage-y performances — particularly Pabon’s Basilio; Mel Rocher’s version of Clotaldo, Segismundo’s jailer; and Delbis Cardona’s hyper-broad-stroked clowning as the servant Clarín.
While Alonso de Santos is none too convincing when Segismundo turns wrathful or virtuous, the actor does ace moments of pathos, when the prince huddles twitchily in his jail cell, fidgeting with his chains. Peter Pereyra infuses some warmth and authenticity into Astolfo, a contender for the Polish throne. But Padrao is still the cast standout as Rosaura, who’s in pursuit of a man who has wronged her. A scene of steely, yearning-flecked dalliance between Astolfo and Rosaura is the highlight of the play.
The production benefits hugely from Jesús Díaz Cortés’s gorgeous, often gold-steeped lighting, which heightens the narrative’s fable-like aspects and underscores the motif of dreams. Moyenda Kulemeka and Eric J. Davis designed the pretty ye-olde-Slavonic costumes.
Milagros Ponce de León’s spare set, with its stark staircases, suits the play’s awareness of vertiginous existential depths. Is Segismundo dreaming? Are we all? Can we ever know anything for certain? Rosaura is at least sure about one thing. When Clotaldo asks her whom she can depend upon, she answers, “Myself.”
Life Is a Dream (La Vida Es Sueño), by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, adapted by Nando López. Directed by Hugo Medrano; sound design, Jesús Díaz Cortés; projections, Nitsan Scharf; properties, Alicia Tessari; fight director, Casey Kaleba. With Leo Delgado, Camilo Linares and Catherine Nunez. In Spanish with English surtitles (English translation, Heather McKay). Two hours. Tickets: $30-48. Through Oct. 13 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174 or galatheatre.org.