Life’s A Dream by Ten Thousand Things Theater

Maggie Chestovich and Namir Smallwood in Life's A Dream. Photo by Neil Rasmussen.

At first it’s off-putting, the lack of any stage lighting at a Ten Thousand Things play.  Blinking fluorescents, the glare of the late morning sun, the institutional playing space (conference rooms, cafeterias).  But soon you find yourself leaning forward, eager to catch the tiniest change in the actors demeanor, the subtlest vocal shift.  Flashing eyes.  Gestures.  After all, they’re right there, close enough to touch.  This is acting distilled down to its essence (and TTT attracts the finest players in town).  Anything is possible.

Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca‘s venerable Life’s A Dream (La vida es sueño) is the perfect TTT play (Ten Thousand Things, through Nov 21, various venues – check the website for details).  Written in 1635 (or thereabouts), the play is an astonishing study of death and dreaming.  Set in a fairy tale Poland, the old king Basilio has kept his son Sigismund locked in a forest prison since birth – because of an old prophesy.  Feeling death’s approach, Basilio decides to free Sigismund for a day, to see if the prophecy, that he’ll behave like a madman, is true.  It is, and in response Basilio drugs Sigismund and drags him back to prison, confident that Sigismund will see it all as a dream.

Into this hallucinatory mix comes a woman disguised as a man, Rosaura, accompanied by the motor-mouth clown Clarion.  Rosaura is searching for her lost belovèd whom she will either marry or slay.  Many stern literary critics have looked askance at Rosaura and Clarion, even to the point of suggesting that they are stock characters (the jilted lover, the clown) inserted into the play by some anonymous hack.  But I don’t think so.  It’s the combination of recognizable theatrical types and the weird dreamy story that gives the play its unique Calderonesque oomph.

The dreaming motif thrills.  “Kindness is never wasted, even in dreams.”  “It’s all a dream; man is nothing.”  The ethereal, mysterious nature of reality is Life’s A Dream‘s primary theme.  “Death awakes us.”  As is often the case with plays like this, the English version is an improvement, as we’re not saddled with the flowery 17th century text.  British playwright Adrian Mitchell‘s work excels.

The actors are to a person terrific and I wish would assign me space enough to praise them properly.  Maggie Chestovich plays Rosaura with a fierce stammering passion that is quite infectious.  As Clarion, Elise Langer is hootingly funny – but her final moment will knock you out with its intensity (I’m going restrain myself from describing it in detail).  Dennis Spears moves slowly, tall, composed and regal.  Stephen D’Ambrose combines a quiet dignity and emotional vibrancy; he amazes.  Ki Seung Rhee, Celeste Jones and Nancy Waldoch all turn in intelligent and deeply felt performances.

Finally, there is Namir Smallwood as Sigismund.  Wow.  Raw, yet contained, with a slow, inexorable build, through loneliness to anger and violence, then to a deeper and completely convincing maturity.  Smallwood plays it perfectly.

And, as always, Michelle Hensley directs with focused power.

As with all TTT plays, Life’s A Dream plays in prisons, homeless shelters, etc, before settling in for a public run (starting Oct 29) at Open Book and at the Minnesota Opera Center.  Check the website for details.

Don’t miss this one.

For more info about John Olive please check out his (recently updated) website.

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