Last night in Markel Auditorium, the Tower Players performed the first show of the season, Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Spanish comedy “Life is a Dream.”
When I sat down in the darkening auditorium to watch the dress rehearsal performance of “Life is a Dream,” a plummy purple glow lit up a zodiac pattern on the center of the black stage and ethereal choral music started to play. I propped my feet up on the chair in front of me and settled in for my first experience with Calderon de la Barca’s Golden Age classic. The lights paled to gold, and the first two performers stormed the stage from the aisles. The comedic drama that ensued kept me engaged, surprised, and unsure of whether what was happening on stage was supposed to provoke laughter or gasps. I left the theater two hours later with the surreal events and colorful images of the play clinging like cobwebs to my thoughts as I blinked my eyes in the lobby lights.
The play follows Segismundo, the prince of Poland, who was born under a prophecy of destruction. In an attempt to thwart destiny, his father, King Basilio, locks him away in a tower until he is grown up, and brings him back to the kingdom as a test to see if a man’s decisions can alter the course of fate. Having had no social influences beside his buffoonish tutor Clotaldo, Prince Segismundo takes to his new liberty like a beast released from a cage. Incensed by the injustice of his lonely life and eager to satisfy the tyrannical desires his chains once kept secured, Segismundo uses physical violence to overcome every obstacle that stands between himself and gratification. A frustrated King Basilio pulls the plug on his failed experiment when his wayward son tries to throw a servant from a window. He has Segismundo drugged and sent back to the tower where he will wake to find his glorious royalty dissolved while he slept. Segismundo’s ever-changing reality forces him to contemplate the underlying meaning to be found in a dream-like existence.
Director James Brandon, professor of art and theatre, accentuates the humor of the play with a cast of active and diverse personalities who fill out the script with non-verbal comic details. It’s the simplest moments that contribute to the play’s overall hilarity, like when Segismundo first finds himself enrobed in court and can’t seem to accustom himself to his royal garments. With his sword strapped awkwardly to his hip, he nearly whacks the servant on his left with the side of his blade whenever he turns.
The leading man, senior Lane Gaudet, brings a physicality to the stage that captures both the humor of Segismundo’s manic beastliness and the pity of his confused humanity. He howls like a beast, sprawls like a teenage boy, and crouches in chains like a penitent sinner. Whether he is lying spread-eagle on the courtroom floor, picking up a servant to hurl her out a window, or curling up in a fetal crunch, cowering from the dreamscape of his confused life, Gaudet expresses an ease on stage that perfectly encapsulates the unselfconscious wildness of Prince Segismundo. Gaudet’s physical energy is well suited to the physicality of a play rife with duels, battles, and slapstick humor.
The only freshman with a leading role in the play is Jon Syren, whose portrayal of King Basilio drives home the theme of man’s frustration against the powers of fate. Syren offers an authentic performance, tackling a hefty load of lines with ease and conviction.
Other students whose talents feature in “Life is a Dream” include senior Jessica MacFarlane as the fiery Princess Estrella, and senior Katie Buursma as the jilted Rosaura, out for revenge on her ex-lover obsequious Astolfo, played by Trenton Olds. The cast as a whole plays up the work’s playful charm, each supporting character lending individuality and humor to the ensemble.
Dramatic monologues frequently interrupted the comic action of the play. Dreamy purple lighting offsets these contemplative moments while all the characters except the speaker pause in time. These surreal interludes punctuate philosophically troubling moments in the plot as a character’s internal consciousness imposes itself on the external events of the story. The aesthetic shift between the garish gold lighting of the “real time” play action and the plum haze the internal dialogues leave the audience with a layered impression of reality in the play.
The production opened Wednesday, Oct. 3, and performances will continue Oct. 4 – 6 at 7:30 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 2:00 p.m.
It charms the audience with winning student performances, engaging action sequences, and artful comic relief. With the help of a dynamic cast, colorful sets and costumes, and dreamy lighting, Brandon captures the humor of Calderon’s comedy without losing the more serious elements of the drama.