Main Street Theater opens its 38th season with a rare gem, Pedro Calderon's 1635 classic Life Is a Dream. It's the ultimate nature vs. nurture play. With a fresh translation from playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) and a sprightly acted production, there's plenty of life in this antique chestnut from Spain's Golden Age. One could say it's fairly dreamy.
Philip IV's royal playwright, Calderon hewed close to the state ideology -- kings can do no wrong and the concept of honor is held in esteem -- but he was genius enough to parlay party line into high art. His plots are bold and vivid, but it's his solidly visual language that sets him next to Shakespeare for sheer poetry in motion. Cruz keeps him down to earth somewhat, modernizing a lot of the high-soaring passages and condensing some of its heavy weight, but he always allows those crystalline Calderon images to float front and center. You can't fault this: "Out in the world no one is awake. No one. So let us dream! And if someone can't sleep let them open their windows, so they can gaze at the moving skies and dream with open eyes." Dream is filled with many such passages of clarity and precision. More often than not, the language amazes.
Polish Prince Segismundo (David Wald) has been imprisoned since birth to forestall the dire prophesy his horoscope predicted. Shackled and secluded, he's been tutored by the King's faithful general Clotaldo (David Grant). His father King Basilio (Steve Garfinkel), guilt-ridden at what he has done, atones for his parenting skills by bringing Segismundo back to the palace. If he proves wise and good, the prince will reign; if he behaves like the monster his father believes him to be, he will return to his nightmarish prison. Segismundo is made to believe that he is dreaming his royal moment. Naturally, Segismundo, once given kingly power, is terribly upset for this unnatural upbringing, and shows no manners at all to the toadying courtiers -- he tosses a servant out the window in one of his first royal acts -- as he fights duels, assaults the independent, vengeful Rosaura (Beth Lazarou), and roars his primal hurt like the wounded lion he has become. Back he goes to his prison tower. But not for long.
Calderon laces this psychologically cogent thriller with the bracing idea of free will. Can man overcome his fate? Must the beast inside always win against our better angels? Then he ladles on the intriguing notion that if life is but a dream, what is real in this world? And how can one tell the difference? In crisp, short scenes, Calderon plays out his theories, keeping us enthralled with this elemental drama, and then, as if all this isn't heady enough, intermixes a vengeance subplot using Rosaura and her former lover Astolfo (Justin O'Brien), heir to the throne, who has jilted her for his niece Estrella (Crystal O'Brien). Calderon saves the day the same way Shakespeare always did: he gives us comic relief in the wise-ass, cowardly Clarin (Philip Hays), servant to Rosaura. His ironic wisecracks and asides to the audience send this play into the rafters. Dream needs the laughs to mock the harsh reality and tweak the nose of all the stuffy upper crust. Segismundo gives the play heart; Clarin gives it life; and actor Hays gives Clarin Borscht Belt timing.
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Wald makes a terrifically sympathetic prince, whether howling at his fate or opening up to the beauties of Estrella. "What must the sun do after you rise from your bed," he raves Romeo-like upon seeing her. Both O'Briens give their royal characters an imperious layer that says "to the manor born"; while Garfinkel shows the paternal warmth beneath the Lear exterior. With his resonant baritone, Grant is a commanding army man; while Lazarou, usually singing on other stages, creates a fierce, proud princess. She looks at ease carrying her sword as would Joan of Arc. Bobby Haworth and Joanna Hubbard ably fill in the ensemble roles of soldiers and courtiers. There are a few moments when rage and braying get the upper hand and threaten to swamp the good ship Calderon, but director Pablo Bracho steadies the boat immediately. There's nothing he can do about the quick reversals of the ending, where the disparate couples are paired and happiness secured within the blink of an eye.
If life is a dream, as Calderon so ably implies, then Main Street's exceedingly minimal production -- sweatshirts and everyday wear overlaid with period trappings -- has a dream logic all its own. It's impossible to make Calderon up to date; his ornate language won't allow it. But his particular message to live life fully and do your best in the living of it is a fit lesson for any age.
Calderon's classic runs through October 21 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. Purchase tickets online at mainstreettheater.com or call 713-524-6706. $20-$36.