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'Dream's' Language Is Ever-Changing

A Noise Within hopes its updated translation of a Spanish classic will speak to a new generation of viewers.

April 26, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You insane animal!"

Spoken by a wayfarer to her unruly steed, these three words make up the first sentence of Kenneth Cavander's new translation of "Life Is a Dream," the Spanish classic by Pedro Calderon de la Barca.

A Noise Within commissioned the translation--the only time that the Glendale-based classical company has ever collaborated directly with a living literary artist. The production opens Friday.

Calderon's 1636 classic has been translated or adapted into English often over the centuries, and several times in the last decade. So is a new translation really necessary, or is it just something for A Noise Within to brag about? A glance at a few of the other translations of Calderon's play might provide an answer.

One of the other translations begins with a 48-word sentence, of which the first three words are "You headlong hippogriff." Another, with 31 words in its first sentence, starts with "Wild hippogriff"--a hippogriff, explains a footnote, is "a mythological creature, half horse, half griffin." A third translation spells out the meaning of "hippogriff," avoiding the obscure word itself: "Where have you thrown me, mad horse, half griffin?" Of course a griffin (half eagle, half lion) may not mean much more than a hippogriff to most modern theatergoers--Merv Griffin fans excepted.

Throwing Away Archaic References

Cavander dodged the whole subject of hippogriffs. "I didn't want the audience to ask right off the bat, 'What does that mean?' or to feel left out," he explained. Such thoughts would distract from the deeper meaning of the scene--and 48-word sentences could vex many a skilled actor.

Cavander's translation "makes the play so actable, so muscular," said Geoff Elliott, co-director of the production and one of three artistic directors of the company. "Nothing is wasted."

Whether the words are "actable" is important to Elliott, because he plays the central role of a prince who has been kept locked up and unaware of his heritage until he is suddenly asked to take over the throne. With other translations, "it was very difficult to wrap my mouth around the words," he said.

Cavander was born in Prague of a Scottish mother and educated at Oxford, but he is married to an American citizen and has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. He is probably best known for an adaptation of classic Greek drama that he and John Barton did for British actors, the massive epic "The Greeks," which premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979. His work with Greek drama also includes, among others, a 1956 translation of "Oedipus Rex" that A Noise Within staged in 1999 and "Women of Troy," which Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented last year.

Compared with the Greeks, Calderon is "a lot easier," Cavander said. "All the reference points and the language are so much closer in time and rhythm. Calderon is often like Shakespeare in the way scenes are constructed and the way he uses metaphor."

The current production was born out of two desires at A Noise Within--to do a classic from the Spanish Golden Age ("We want to taste-test the world," Elliott said) and to work with Cavander, based on the company's experience with Cavander's version of "Oedipus."

One of A Noise Within's artistic directors has a personal interest in exploring Spanish drama. Julia Rodriguez Elliott, co-director of the play with her husband (the Elliotts and Art Manke are the three artistic directors), spoke only Spanish until she started school at age 6. Her parents had emigrated from Cuba to Florida in 1959, but her mother went back to the island in 1960 so that Julia could be born there. With the revolution in full swing, mother and infant daughter barely managed to return to Florida after the birth.

She played the bride in A Noise Within's only previous venture into Spanish drama, "Blood Wedding" in 1993. And she has maintained her Spanish well enough to read the original text of "Life Is a Dream" (La Vida es Sueno).

After considering other Spanish classics, "we kept coming back to 'Life Is a Dream,' " she said. A Noise Within is not alone in this regard. Oregon Shakespeare Festival is currently doing an adaptation that premiered at Denver Center Theatre in 1998. L.A.-based playwright Jose Rivera adapted "Life Is a Dream" for his own "Sueno," which premiered in Hartford in 1998 and in New York last year. Another adaptation, by Adrian Mitchell and John Barton, was produced in England and then off-off-Broadway earlier this year.

"It's in the air," Cavander said. "After years of neglect, it's being done everywhere."

The title of the play stems from a move by the prince's keepers to retain the option of telling him that his reign is only a dream--just in case it doesn't work out. In this respect, the play speaks to the relativism of modern life, Cavander said. "It appeals to an era when everything is in flux, when the foundations of a lot of our beliefs are up for grabs. The leading character has to reinvent himself."

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