Review: ‘Life is a Dream’ at GALA Hispanic Theatre

In our world-class DC area, the GALA Hispanic Theatre continues to be a beacon with a mission to produce playwrights and plays often unknown to English-speaking audiences. GALA is a National Center for Latino Performing Arts in the nation’s capital.

Daniel Alonso de Santos in 'Life is a Dream' at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Photo by Stan Weinstein.
Daniel Alonso de Santos in ‘Life is a Dream’ at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Photo by Stan Weinstein.

Since 1976, GALA has been sharing the Latino arts with diverse audiences in the DC area, where Spanish is the second most spoken language after English. GALA’s productions are in Spanish with English surtitles.

GALA Hispanic Theater is opening its new season with a commissioned work: an adaptation of one of the Spanish Golden Age theater’s plays. The play is La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream) written by master playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681). Calderón is considered one of the greatest Spanish playwrights of the Golden Age.

The Spanish Golden Age was a time of great artistic activity that lasted from about 1580 to 1680. It was a time when El Greco and Velázquez painted and Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. For a point of reference, William Shakespeare produced many of his works between 1589 and 1613. The defeat of the Spanish Armada by English naval forces took place in 1588.

Set in a fictionalized Poland in the 17th century as that country’s influence and power in Europe is waning, Life is a Dream explores tyranny, fate, free will, and gender issues.

The play stitches together several key stories. There is Segismundo (a distinct presentation of a thorny character by Daniel Alonso de Santos, a native of Spain in his debut with GALA), who was imprisoned since birth by his father King Basilio (a firm, unwavering Timothy Andres Pabon). The King wanted to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy that he found distasteful.

The play opens on a dark night years after Segismundo has been first imprisoned in a dingy cage. He is under the watchful eyes of jailer Clotaldo (a determined Mel Rocher in a role with many hidden aspects). All is upended when Rosaura (a resolute, full of fortitude Soraya Padrao) appears disguised as a man; she wants to restore her honor, her birthright, and even more, control her own destiny. With their unexpected meeting, Segismundo and Rosaura’s lives intertwine, fueling the overall drama of Life is a Dream. Both must find ways to assert themselves; to discover who they truly may be. The complications and the consequences of their initial meeting and later actions push the play forward and give it clout.

Soraya Padrao and Daniel Alonso de Santos in ‘Life is a Dream’ at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Photo by Stan Weinstein.
Soraya Padrao and Daniel Alonso de Santos in ‘Life is a Dream’ at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Photo by Stan Weinstein.

With the adaptation of the original Calderón Life is a Dream by Nando Lopez and efficient, keen direction by GALA’s Producing Director, Hugo Medrano, Life is a Dream examines a quite contemporary existential issue: Is life an illusion, a mere shadow and not “real”? As the character Segismundo states in one key moment, how can he deal with life’s situations if “I don’t know if I am awake.” Life is a Dream also spills into statements and scenes about ethical choices, about gender roles, about what is one’s duty if there are tough choices to be made.

There are scenes of great potency in which a metal chain attached to Segismundo and to a wall clanks thunderously as he tugs and tugs hoping for freedom. There is also scene work with a real sense of terror dealing with how a character plunges into a world of sunlight, opulence, and interacting with other human beings for the first time in decades. How will he behave? Is it his fault if he behaves badly?

The production of Life is a Dream is not just darkness. There are moments of sketch-like broad comedy by a servant character named Clarin (Deblis Cardona with a sarcastic delivery) to balance out the deeper drama of Life is a Dream. The humor is like a drum rim shot. Other characters who add to the play’s punch are Astolfo (Peter Pereyra) and Estrella (Catherine Nunez) as a bickering couple of higher rank, with eyes for their own survival.

The scenic design by Milagros Ponce de León with the terrific lighting design by Jesús Díaz Cortés provide visuals that are tightly connected to script and narrative.

Cortés has a deft hand with a golden glow of morning, the honey yellow of sunset and the murky nature of a castle dungeon. His lighting design is handsome indeed. Costume designs, by Moyenda Kulemeka and Eric J. Davis, give a clear sense of the characters’ place and rank.

GALA Hispanic Theatre’s production of Life is a Dream does as director Medrano suggested he aimed for: “challenges us to find the chains that bind us so that we can finally break free.”

Running Time: About 2 hours, with one intermission.

Life is a Dream runs through October 13, 2019, at GALA Hispanic Theater – 3333 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 234-7174 or go online.

Performed in Spanish with English surtitles.


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