Perched high on a large rock at center stage, an Angel looms over the mortal characters in María Irene Fornés’ adaptation of Pedro Calderón de La Barca’s classic 17th-century Spanish play Life Is a Dream, now playing at Baltimore Center Stage. The Angel, in a riveting performance by O’Malley Steurman, observes, witnesses, sings, and sometimes exercises the power of life and death.
The Angel is not a character in Calderón’s four-act original script, which Fornés compressed into an 80-minute one-act. Nor do members of the quartet of younger characters at the heart of the story — Segismund, Rosaura, Astolfo, and Estrella — ultimately wind up with the same partners or the same futures as in the original. But Fornés does follow the main line of Calderón’s plot, as complex as any in Shakespeare.
Basilio, the king of Poland, where Calderón sets the action, is played by Nancy Linden as a rather feeble monarch too devoted to astrology for anyone’s good. Believing that the stars have ordained that his son, Segismund, will violently destroy the kingdom, Basilio has him chained up in a remote castle. When we first see Segismund, in a physically powerful performance by Jak Watson, he is wild and full of anger. He is tended to by Clotaldo (Gerrado Rodriguez), an exemplar of loyal service to his king.
Rosaura (a charismatic Erin Margaret Pettigrew) and her servant Clarin (Christopher Sears) happen upon Segismund after getting lost in the wilds of Poland. Rosaura, who at first presents as a man, is headed to Basilio’s court to gain revenge on a man who seduced and abandoned her.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, cousins Estrella (Andrea Morales) and Astolfo (Kené Chelo Ortiz), while attracted to one another, contend for the role of heir to the throne. Morales plays Estrella as a highly entitled, stylistically present-day, young woman, while Ortiz’s Astolfo is a shallow young man who delivers the same line to any attractive woman he sees and thinks he should have priority for the throne because he is male. Both are a bit dim. While their interaction is often comical, their ambition is real.
Thinking, somewhat belatedly after 20-plus years, that he may have been unfair to Segismund by locking him in a tower, Basilio decides to bring Segismund to court to see if he can act like a civilized royal. He directs Clotaldo to give him a sleeping potion to manage the transition, with the proviso that if the young man fails the audition, he will be given the potion again, transported back to his prison, and told that his experience at court was merely a dream.
In the most visually arresting, and indeed dreamlike, image in the production, Segismund, after drinking the blue potion, is disrobed and given a sponge bath by Clotaldo, turning slowly while bathed in pale blue light in Cha See’s superb lighting design. Throughout the production, See’s design is highly specific and tonally appropriate to the play’s varied characters and situations.
Segismund’s brief time at court goes south, and he soon finds himself back in prison, from which he is drafted as the leader of a revolution, bringing him into armed conflict with his father. But he has somehow learned that a prince must give honor, that compassion and forgiveness matter, and that his first victory must be to triumph over his own self.
This is a multi-layered play thematically. There is Segismund’s path from being a Caliban-like brute to a virtuous prince through self-mastery. The brevity of Fornés’ adaptation foreshortens the steps in his path, making his transition feel somewhat abrupt. Paralleling Segismund’s transition is that of Rosaura, who finds a way to vindicate her honor without taking revenge. Both dedicate themselves to fighting for justice for the oppressed.
Honor matters in Life Is a Dream, not only with respect to Rosaura but also to Clotaldo, who finds that his commitment to loyalty must adapt to changing circumstances. Rodriguez expresses well Clotaldo’s rational explanations of the different decisions to which that commitment leads him.
The permutations of gender play an important part. No less than Shakespeare’s Viola or Rosalind, Rosaura is a famously gender-fluid character. Rosaura says to Segismund:
Three times you have seen me and three times you have not known who I am. The first time you believed I was a man. The second, you admired me as a woman. And today is the third time, when you see me wearing women’s clothes and carrying a man’s weapon.
Angels traditionally do not have binary human gender, and Steurman’s portrayal of the Angel works well in parallel to Rosaura’s fluidity in director Stevie Walker-Webb’s concept of the play, which successfully expands the Angel’s role beyond that specified in the script.
As the play’s title suggests, the dreamlike nature of life is an overarching theme. Experiencing something extraordinary and believing it was only a dream can be played for comedy, witness Nick Bottom. Here, Segismund’s “dream” has far more serious import, going to the core of what he is and who he will become. Reminiscent of Prospero’s “We are such things as dreams are made on…,” Segismund concludes that “Everything in life passes like a dream,” significantly adding that he wants to “seize the time while the dream lasts” to make good use of the freedom he now enjoys.
The production’s technical elements are first-rate. Anton Volovsek’s set is dominated by a huge rock around and on top of which the action proceeds. Kindall Houston Almond’s costumes feature striking metallic fabric elements. The brightly lit handles of swords are a highlight of the props design. The play involves a good deal of physical conflict, and fight director Casey Kaleba keeps the confrontations believable.
Fornés’ script is an interesting mixture of frequent rapid-fire exchanges of sentence-length or shorter lines interspersed with longer monologues by several characters, some suggesting the more formal language of 17th-century writing. The script and Walker-Webb’s direction mix together traditional ideas like honor and fealty to a king with contemporary elements like seeking justice for the oppressed and the foolishness of entitlement. The broad comedy of Clarin, well-executed by Sears, and the pain of the shackled Segismund coexist in close proximity.
As a result, it is difficult at times for the production to maintain a consistent tone, though in this it may be seen as reflecting the chaos of real life. The production’s only misstep is a goofy audience-participation moment, not in the script, that precedes the actual beginning of the play.
Steurman, in their gorgeous mezzo voice, closes the play by singing
Everything in life passes
Everything in life has its end
But he who is born a slave
Has not begun to live.
The characters in Life Is a Dream ultimately do begin to live, and make something of their lives in ways that have a real impact on the audience.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Life Is a Dream plays through May 21, 2023, at Baltimore Center Stage – 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets ($59–$74, with senior and student discounts available), call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.
The May 14 performance is canceled.
The program for the production, including excellent dramaturgical articles by Leo Carbones-Grant and Carla Della Gatta, is online here.
COVID Safety: Baltimore Center Stage’s current policy includes mask-optional performances on Thursdays, Saturday evenings, and Sunday matinees, and mask-required performances on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturday matinees. During those performances, masks may only be removed in designated eating and drinking areas. For more COVID-safety information, please visit here.