The air is still as the door flies open. Smoke oozes out and a red light shines through. A man, haggard and shackled by chains, emerges and staggers to center stage. His face cannot be seen at first, but when revealed his countenance is a peculiar mix of anger and suffering. It is Prince Segismundo, once the heir apparent to the Polish throne and now imprisoned due to a prophecy foretelling the destruction of the kingdom.
From October 20 to 22 in the Loeb Experimental Theater, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club presented Pedro Calderon’s “Life is a Dream,” the tale of Prince Segismundo (Bryan D. Kauder ’14) and his struggle to differentiate dreams and reality upon his brief release from confinement. Boasting strong directing from Caleb J. Thompson ’14, acting, and technical elements, “Life is a Dream” was able to integrate the antiquity of the play successfully to create a truly modern production without sacrificing the original’s 17th-century ambiance.
The cast displayed an easy confidence that made the material, which could easily become stilted, feel organic. In order to make the play relatable to a modern audience without modifying the inevitably dated dialogue, the production relied on universal themes and unrestrained emotion. Whether in Kauder’s slight caress of Rosaura (Darcy C. Donelan ’14), the spurned lover of Astolfo (Adam J. Conner ’14), or the constant, bubbling tension between Kauder and Joshua G. Wilson ’13, who played his overseer Clotaldo, the chemistry between the co-stars was the core of the play’s success.
The cast’s understanding of the importance of musicality to verse drama was another key to the production’s engaging quality. Fraught with soliloquies and extravagant manipulations of language, the sounds of the words in “Life is a Dream” are just as important as the interpretation. Originally written in Spanish, the play’s dialogue risks losing some of its natural beauty in translation. Fortunately, the cast took care to create a rhythm that coincided with the tides and ripples of the tone of the play. The words were no longer just the framework for a story, but a musical element that served as the emotional foundation of the play’s grandiose speeches.
While the performances were inspired all around, Wilson as Clotaldo especially stood out. He was a paradigm of bygone nobility and honor, a man who can be cruel when need be but is unfailingly gentle to those close to him.
Wilson’s complete mastery of the character’s nuances was seen in his small actions. His rigid posture and grimace towards Kauder, coupled with a noticeable softness and caution towards Donelan, demonstrated great intricacy. Clotaldo’s plight aroused sympathy: he had a relatability that ultimately separated him from the rest.
The acting was further enhanced by the usage of light. Matthew G. Warner ’13, the light designer, used shades of red and purple sparingly. During soliloquies in particular, the lights contributed to a tense stillness that demanded attention for the ongoing speech. The director’s choice to leave the rest of the cast on the stage motionless and frozen contributed to this ambiance; the speaker’s isolation helped establish an air of significance.
The minimalist attitude towards technical design carried over into the set, which relied purely on the location of the actors and strategic usages of doors and entryways. Thompson was able to create a setting out of nothing. In the play’s final scene, the entire cast appeared on stage together in a carefully blocked array around the fool, Clarion (Joe G. Hodgkin ’12). Thanks to the compelling development of their relationships earlier in the play, even a soundless video of the characters’ arrangement would convey their reactions and emotional stances towards one another.
The theme of ambiguity and uncertainty of reality persists throughout, and a feeling of disorientation and lack of satisfaction pervaded the play’s aftermath. This lack was not due to any failure of the play or weakness in directing or acting. Instead, it was the result of the unanswered questions that the play raises. As in any dream, there wasn’t a bow to tie things up neatly. The audience was left with plenty to think about, as well as a fleeting impression of emerging from another world, when the lights darkened and the story ended.