Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Fresh Hell Is This?

It's not such a long distance from "What could possibly go wrong?" to "How could this get any worse?" Whether caught in a terrifying natural disaster, a mean and moralistic fairy tale, or a bad relationship, it's rare to hit rock bottom and be convinced that you've gone about as far as you can go.

As someone who has always experienced very intense dreams, I can usually relax during my waking cycle, secure in the knowledge that as distressing as a dream might be, I'm going to wake up. Having long ago made my peace with the transition between a dream state and the cold reality of awakening from a world filled with magical realism, I'm no longer frightened by my adventures in somnolence.

Whether frustrated by their real lives or challenged in narrative fiction, others are often less fortunate. From Herman Melville's 1851 novel entitled Moby-Dick, or, The Whale to Jules Verne's 1864 fantasy entitled Journey to the Center of the Earth; from 1939's Gone With The Wind to William Goldman's 1973 romance, The Princess Bride; from 1969's The Valley of Gwangi to 2009's full-length animated feature, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, trouble lies just around the corner. Smart audiences have learned to expect the unexpected.

Sometimes however, real life takes on nightmarish qualities. Whether imprisoned in the mountains, a classroom, or the deeper recesses of one's mind, some situations become so stifling that finding a way out of such torture requires skill, imagination, and more than a little bit of luck.

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Using Nilo Cruz's tense and lively 100-minute adaptation, the California Shakespeare Theater recently offered Bay area audiences a rare staging of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 1635 play entitled Life Is A Dream (La vida es sueño). According to Wikipedia:
"The story focuses on the fictional Segismundo, Prince of Poland, who has been imprisoned in a tower by his father, King Basilio, following a dire prophecy that the prince would bring disaster to the country and death to the King. Basilio briefly frees Segismundo, but when the prince goes on a rampage, the king imprisons him again, persuading him that it was all a dream."
King Basilio (Adrian Roberts) and his son, Segismundo (Sean San José)
in a scene from Life Is A Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Among those in attendance at the court of King Basilio (Adrian Roberts) are his servant, Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas), who has been Segismundo's tutor and sole human contact; Basilio's nephew, Astolfo, Duke of Muscovy (Amir Abdullah), and the King's niece, Princess Estrella (Tristan Cunningham). While Astolfo and Estrella each aspire to the throne, it is the dangerous and unpredictable Segismundo who is Basilio's true heir.

Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), Astolfo (Amir Abdullah), and
Estrella (Tristan Cunningham) in a scene from Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Matters are complicated by the arrival of a mysterious young woman named Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), who is initially disguised as a man, and her jester, Clarin (Jomar Tagatac), who have stumbled across Segismundo's prison cell. When challenged by Clotaldo, Rosaura offers him her sword (which the older man instantly recognizes as proof that she is his long-lost daughter).

Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas) and Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon) 
in a scene from Life Is A Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When released from his chains, sedated, and brought to court, Segismundo's justifiable anger at his father leads to an outburst of violent behavior which would seem to fulfill the prophecy Basilio has long feared. As Segismundo continues to cause havoc, Basilio instructs Clotaldo to give the young man another dose of the potion with which he was initially drugged and return the prince to his prison cell so that, upon awakening, Segismundo will believe his misadventures were nothing but a dream. However, the young prince -- who is severely lacking in social skills -- is quickly charmed by Estrella's physical beauty -- the glory of which is not easily forgotten.

Estrella (Tristan Cunningham( and Segismundo (Sean San José)
in a scene from Life Is A Dream (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Directed by Loretta Greco on Andrew Boyce's beautiful unit set, the Calshakes production benefitted immensely from the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, Christopher Akerlind's lighting design, and Alex Jaeger's costumes. The company's artistic director, Jonathan Moscone, writes in his program note that:
"I am thrilled to bring Calderon, a near-contemporary of Shakespeare's, to our stage for the first time in my 15-year tenure. After reading Cruz's superb adaptation, I can't help but wonder why it took me so long. While Calderon set the play in Poland, Cruz's landscape for the action is unspecified. It could be anywhere where an oppressive state imprisons individuals who are deemed threats to the ruling order. And as the play pits father against son, the politics of the nation are the politics of the family, which makes Life Is A Dream, at its heart, deeply human and deeply charged."
Sean San José as Segismundo in Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"I've read earlier translations of Calderon's play and, while they all capture the original ideas of this great writer from the Spanish Golden Age, none are as immediate, as urgent, as muscular, or as beautiful as Cruz's adaptation. What I find most striking about Cruz's language is how it is able to infuse the heady notions of fate versus self-determination, and illusion versus reality, with the palpable feelings of repressed desires for love, revenge, and freedom. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for his play Anna in the Tropics, Cruz grips the heart from the first line, only to release it into a transcendent state of clarity and peace at the final stage direction."
Sean San José as Segismundo in Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One of the joys of being able to see certain actors appear in various productions throughout the year on Bay area stages is that one gets a chance to appreciate their versatility. I have never seen San San José on fire with the intensity he brought to his portrayal of Segismundo. Nor has Tristan Cunningham looked more radiant and exotic. Sarah Nina Hayon (Rosaura) and Julian López-Morillas (Clotaldo) deliver p;owerful portrayals in supporting roles.  

As should be expected at any Shakespearean festival, jesters, fools, and clowns has been extremely important to the 2015 Calshakes season, with Ted Deasy appearing as Feste in Twelfth NightDanny Scheie co-starring in The Mystery of Irma Vep, and an as-yet unidentified actor taking on the role of the Fool in King Lear. As Clarin, Jomar Tagatac (who continues to develop as a top-notch character actor) provided the voice of reason while deftly playing the clown.

Jomar Tagatac provides comic relief as Clarin in Life Is A Dream
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Calderon's play asks the audience to ponder whether life is a dream or a dream is real life; whether a man can overcome a cruel and unusual punishment based on a bizarre prophecy or whether his imprisonment and destiny are nothing more than reveries in the inexplicable vastness of the universe. Performances of Life Is A Dream continue through August 2 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here to order tickets).

Poster art for Life Is A Dream

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Bay area audiences have eagerly awaited the touring production of Matilda The Musical, which was first developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company as the 2010 Christmas show for Stratford-Upon-Avon and subsequently took London's West End and Broadway by storm. Directed by Matthew Warchus (with choreography by Peter Darling, book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and sets and costumes designed by Rob Howell), the show is based on Roald Dahl's famous children's book, Matilda.

Quinn Mattfield is Matilda's father (Mr. Wormwood)
in Matilda The Musical (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Dahl's protagonist is a five-year-old girl who has the misfortune of being born to the most selfish, shallow, superficial, insensitive, and incredibly stupid parents in the world. Not only must she live in the shadow of her older brother, Michael (Danny Tieger), who is a slovenly moron, Matilda (Mabel Tyler) ends up attending a school run by the horrible Agatha Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness), a bitter and sadistic schoolteacher who hates little children even more than Annie's seething Miss Hannigan (whose first name is also Agatha).

Bryce Ryness is the evil Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

What sets Matilda apart from many of her peers is her remarkable intelligence, her blazing imagination, and her willingness to speak out against blatant injustice. Whereas her parents detest books and prefer to get all their information from the television, Matilda loves to read and spends lots of time after school entertaining a doting librarian (Ora Jones) with the fantastical stories she has concocted. The young girl also attracts the attention of Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), a teacher who recognizes Matilda's genius and, against all odds, decides to become her champion.

Matilda (Mabel Tyler) and Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) in a
scene from Matilda The Musical (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Having taught herself how to speak Russian while reading Crime and Punishment, Matilda is able to negotiate her pathetic father's release from the grip of a Russian Mafia thug (Ian Michael Stuart) with ease. The following set of interviews with the show's creative team makes it clear that Matilda The Musical was a labor of love.

Alas, I was severely underwhelmed by Matilda The Musical, mostly because a lethal combination of poor sound design and shrieking children made it possible, at best, to make out 15-20% of the show's words. That's a critical failure in a musical that is essentially about the power of storytelling. When one actually gets a chance to read the lyrics to a clever song like "The Smell of Rebellion," the theatrical loss becomes even more disheartening.

That's not to say that the cast didn't work hard throughout the evening. In addition to Mabel Tyler's Matilda, Quinn Mattfield's Mr. Wormwood, Cassie Silva's Mrs. Wormwood, and the exquisitely evil Miss Trunchbull (as realized by Bryce Ryness), Ora Jones had some strong moments as the librarian, Mrs. Phelps.

The show's heart and soul, however, belong to Miss Honey (nicely voiced and acted by Jennifer Blood), who strikes a blow against the raging forces of anti-intellectualism and the bullying of young children (both in school and at home). Although Act II's "Telly" is a gratingly funny musical number, "When I Grow Up" (the first song written for the show) is the rare moment that captures the inherent magic of Matilda's story.

I wish I could have liked Matilda The Musical more than I did, but it struck me as a wonderful piece of satire that had been blown up way out of proportion. Perhaps this is a case of death by dramatic edema.

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