Few things are as disappointing in the theater as being told you are in the presence of a classical masterpiece and then finding in front of you scant evidence of how this might be true. Such is the case with South Coast Repertory's new main stage offering of the 17th century Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca's "Life Is a Dream," translated and adapted by Cuban American playwright Nilo Cruz and directed within an inch of its surviving pedigree by Kate Whoriskey.
This musty tale of royal succession, honor and revenge underscored by the metaphysical question "What is reality?" is long on philosophical dithering and modernist visual imagery but woefully short on emotion and character.
(There's no shortage of emoting; it just doesn't produce anything resembling an emotional connection with the audience.)
Cruz -- whose play "Anna in the Tropics," about working-class Cuban Americans in Florida in 1929, received its West Coast premiere at SCR and was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize -- has succeeded in conveying some of the Spanish dramatist's original poetry while shortening his baroque speeches to update the pace and keep the length at two hours. But the language, pretty in places, is overshadowed by sights and sounds that overwhelm us with conceptual grandiosity that is spectacular but empty. (Scenic design is by Walt Spangler.)
It begins with a scene recalling the opening of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with deafening metallic noise framing the entrance of two adventurers seen against two large, jagged red industrial abstractions representing mountains. The couple, Clarin (Matt D'Amico) and Rosaura (Lucia Brawley), are oddly dressed in what look vaguely like "Star Trek" uniforms, an indication of the deliberate anachronism that will be the order of the evening. (Calderon set his play in medieval Poland, but no time or place is specified here, suggesting a timeless, absurdist moonscape full of conflicting details, such as flamenco-stomping soldiers who wear sunglasses and carry automatic rifles.)
Clarin, a clown, and Rosaura, disguised as a man, come upon a prostrate creature "chained like an animal" who turns out to be a local prince named Segismundo (Daniel Breaker), who is being kept under lock and key by his father, an astrology-influenced king (John de Lancie) living in fear that his son will become an evil ruler if allowed to succeed him.
It turns out that Rosaura has returned to this nameless kingdom in disguise to seek revenge against a lover who has betrayed her -- Astolfo (Jason Manuel Olazabal), a duke and the king's nephew, who is betrothed to his cousin Estrella (Jennifer Chu). Two stories then unfold -- that of the king's troubled relationship with his son and Rosaura's grim determination to reclaim her honor at whatever cost.
Basilio, the fearful monarch, played eloquently by de Lancie, confides how the birth of Segismundo not only took the life of his wife, the boy's mother, but marked his son as a demon seed -- and dictated his harsh imprisonment. But now, second-guessing his judgment, Basilio decides to chance fate by releasing Segismundo, drugging him and allowing him to wake up in the gilded raiment of a prince, attended by servants, to see what happens.
What happens is that the young prince can't believe his eyes and thinks he must be dreaming to have awakened in such a place amid such surroundings.
When his son, clueless as to what's going on, becomes angry with a courtier on his first day on the job and hurls him out a castle window to his death, Basilio curses himself and cries that "the stars have fulfilled their prophecy." Segismundo furthermore threatens to kill the king's jailer, Clotaldo (Richard Doyle), and provokes a sword fight with Astolfo.
When Rosaura puts away her disguise, revealing a woman of statuesque beauty, Segismundo becomes enthralled, even as he fails to understand his natural impulses. He is subsequently drugged again and returned to solitary confinement, where he wonders anew if he has been dreaming all along and ends Act 1 with an incongruous song lamenting life's illusions and frustrations.
Breaker has a good voice, but hearing his flummoxed character suddenly stirred into song now and again in what is otherwise anything but a musical is just plain weird.
In Act 2, Segismundo is freed again, this time by a rebel army unhappy with the king. He marches on his father's castle with Oedipal fury, only to find his father no longer willing to oppose him. "You may step on my white hair and let it be your carpet," Basilio entreats him with poetry and resignation.
All that's left is for Segismundo to come to terms with his humanity and surprise his father so that harmony can be restored to the symbolic kingdom. And for Rosaura to clear up the question of her murky parentage, allowing her to accept the hand of Astolfo, honorably.