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To dream a show into being

A 17th century Spanish play caught the imaginations of Kate Whoriskey and Nilo Cruz. A quick turnaround for this new translation, however, proved particularly challenging.

February 11, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S song apparently has it right: "Art isn't easy. Every minor detail is a major decision."

At least there's no argument coming from behind the scenes at South Coast Repertory, where Nilo Cruz, the first Latino playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize, and Kate Whoriskey, a young director known for revving the classics with visual flair and bold allusions to present-day eruptions, are having a go at a nearly 400-year-old play that's one of the Spanish language's greatest hits.

The putting-it-together of "Life Is a Dream," scheduled to open this weekend at the Costa Mesa theater in a new translation by Cruz, has been about as compressed as it gets for a large production at a major regional company: barely nine months from broaching the idea to staging the show.

It's Whoriskey's baby. The dark romance by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, published in 1636, deals with fate, cruelty, revenge, love, ambition, redemption and the mysterious overlap of reality and dream. It also calls for staging a revolution. As anyone who saw the choreographed tumult in Whoriskey's SCR mountings of Sophocles' "Antigone" and Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" knows, if you say you want to theatricalize a revolution, you know that you can count her in.

"Life Is a Dream" revolves around Basilio, an astrologer-king who thinks he can read the future, and Segismundo, the son he imprisons from infancy because the stars and planets warn that he is destined to be "the cruelest of all men." Basilio softens and gives the kid a chance at the crown, only to have his worst fears confirmed. Back to his remote mountain gulag goes Segismundo -- but by play's end he's given an opportunity to change, allowing Calderon to put a hopeful spin on the Shakespearean dictum that "the fault ... is not in our stars, but in our selves."

Whoriskey was jazzed by the story's theme of redemption, and in Basilio, a self-styled "man of wisdom" who believes he can control the fate of his nation, she saw a theatrical embodiment of the mind-set behind America's misadventures in Iraq.

David Emmes, South Coast's producing artistic director, liked the idea and suggested trying to reel in Cruz, whose lyrical prose helped him win the 2003 Pulitzer for "Anna in the Tropics." It was an easy sell: Before the Cuban-born, Miami-raised Cruz ever dreamed of a career in theater, he'd fallen for "Life Is a Dream" in a traditional student production he saw at Miami Dade College. Translating it had long been on his to-do list.

The best-known of Calderon's 100 or so plays (not counting nearly as many devotional pieces), "Life Is a Dream" may not be oft-revived in the United States, but it has become something of a because-it's-there Everest for prominent Latino playwrights to climb. Obie Award winners Maria Irene Fornes and Jose Rivera have taken their shots with fairly faithful adaptations (although Rivera's 1998 "Sueno" tinkered with Calderon's ending, yielding something more neatly romantic). Octavio Solis, whose "La Posada Magica" is a Christmas season staple at SCR, set a 1997 version, "Dreamlandia," among drug lords on the Tex-Mex border.

Cruz knew he had to get this one right, so he called in the heavy artillery: He consulted Teresa Maria Rojas, his first acting teacher at Miami Dade, who had directed the play, and his godmother, Ada Cardenas, who embraced "La Vida Es Sueno" as a literature student at the University of Havana. No sooner did aficionados hear what he was up to, Cruz says, than they'd spontaneously break into Segismundo's woebegone first monologue, which is something of a "Hamlet's soliloquy"-type chestnut of the classic Spanish stage. One advisor, Rene Buch, the artistic director of Repertorio Espanol (Spanish Repertory Theatre) in New York, urged him to preserve the rhymed couplets of the original.

"It would have taken me forever," says Cruz, and rhyme just isn't his thing. He had two other projects to complete in the same time frame -- translating his play "Lorca in a Green Dress" into Spanish for Buch's company, and finishing a new drama, "Bolero," in time for a public reading last November at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. When fall came and he was able to plunge into "Life Is a Dream," Cruz adopted some basic rules: be spare, be rhythmic, be ruthless enough to jettison images that could baffle modern playgoers, but be as faithful as possible to the language, themes and story lines of Calderon. Any accentuating of parallels between "Life Is a Dream" and the situation in Iraq would be left to Whoriskey's staging.

Cruz says he began confidently because of his experience translating two of Federico Garcia Lorca's plays. But Calderon's verse proved much harder to wrangle into fluid, contemporary English than Lorca's modern Spanish.

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