Power plays


OLNEY - He has something to say to us, this brawler and vandalizer of convents, this acclaimed playwright who, at age 51, became a priest.

He has something to say about fathers and sons, fate and free will, passion and reason, about how to find meaning in a world that's falling apart. And Pedro Calderon de la Barca says it in his most famous play, "La Vida es Sueno," or "Life is a Dream."

The production of "Sueno" currently running at the Olney Theatre Center has clumsy moments. Some can be blamed on Jose Rivera's adaptation, while others are flaws in the execution.

But after attending this revisioning of Calderon's masterwork, I wished he and I could go out for a beer, and hash out the riveting questions he raises. Maybe Shakespeare could join us - the two playwrights were contemporaries.

And why not? Life is a dream.

That's literally true in "Sueno." Segismundo, a Spanish prince, has been imprisoned since birth by his father, because the stars foretold that the boy would grow up to be a tyrant who would foment civil war.

The prince is locked away in a tower, clothed in animal skins, and attended by just one kindly courtier. But when he's 25, his father relents, and decides to test the truth of the prophecy.

He has Segismundo drugged, brought to the palace, and arrayed in finery to see how he'll handle his newfound power. If the prince is a wise and just ruler, he'll be allowed to retain his throne. If he's cruel and abusive, he'll be drugged again, returned to his prison and told that his day of freedom was merely a dream.

Rich stuff, and it's splendidly expressed in Tony Cisek's set. Concentric wood and metal circles reach from ceiling to floor. They shrink as they recede toward the back of the stage, and Segismundo is imprisoned in the very center. The rings evoke a womb, an eye, a target, the night sky.

What's more, there's a perceptible echo, and people are oddly dressed. For example, the guards wear white plastic skirts topped with Darth Vader-like black hoods. It all conveys the out-of-time, out-of-place feeling that director Jose Carrasquillo was seeking.

In addition, he utilizes "Butoh," a stylized form of dance was developed in Japan in the late 1950s.

In Butoh, movement gives visceral expression to emotions. When a character's feelings are hurt, he falls to the ground and writhes in pain. A woman hiding her true thoughts flicks her wrist, creating a fan to conceal her face. A double-crosser scuttles sideways like a crab. Not all the actors were comfortable with Butoh, and it showed. But when done well, it was quite compelling.

Daniel Luna was particularly effective as Segismundo. With his shaved head, ingratiating smile and near-nakedness, all his surfaces seemed exposed. He crouched like a frog, slithered like a snake and hung on other characters like a friendly monkey. Could there be a better way to convey Segismundo's animal nature?

And Mitchell Hebert (so good as Tartuffe earlier this season), delivers another fine performance as King Basilio. Hebert commits himself fully to the extravagance of Butoh, while expressing nuances with a lifted eyebrow or drooping hand.

Vera Soltero, though, never finds a convincing physical metaphor for Rosaura, her warrior heroine. Her portrayal has too much earth and not enough air and fire. Her awkwardness at times is mirrored by /the script.

Calderon's 17th-century play is an extended allegory, not a character-driven drama. To make it palatable to modern audiences, Rivera imposes a psychological gloss. Granted, those overtones were present in the original. But to make the shoe fit, Rivera slices off the heel.

He adds a scene at the beginning, and more unforgivably, changes Calderon's ending. It's true that Calderon's version dismays and puzzles modern audiences. But it's not sporting to meddle with a playwright's intentions just because the adaptor disagrees with them.

Do that, and you're altering the most essential thing about the work: the playwright's voice.

And even after 400 years, Pedro Calderon de la Barca still has a lot to say.


When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; some 2 p.m. matinees; through Aug. 13.

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

Tickets: $15-$32

Call: 301-924-3400

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