That's the issue propelling Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 1635 play Life Is a Dream. But before you kneel down and thank god they don't write tedious philosophical stage-treatises like that anymore, go see Borderlands Theater's current show. It's Sueño, José Rivera's fairly recent reworking of Calderón's classic. Although Rivera's contemporary touch isn't always golden, it makes it easy for a contemporary audience to understand why this Golden Century play has long been considered one of the finest Spanish dramas of all time.
Borderlands' outstanding production would do justice to the original, and, in truth, Calderón's story and themes come through fully intact in Rivera's hands.
The situation is typically Baroque in its complexity. For all his 25 years, prince Segismundo has been imprisoned in a remote tower. At his birth, his horoscope warned that he would bring disaster upon the kingdom, so his father, King Basilio, had him swaddled in chains and sent away under the sometime care of his trusted advisor Clotaldo.
It turns out that Clotaldo himself had, in a distant country, fathered a child, then abandoned her and her mother. Now the girl, Rosaura, is grown and has come to Basilio's kingdom seeking revenge. It seems that a certain Duke Astolfo has seduced and abandoned her; now Astolfo, along with his cousin Estrella, is in line for Basilio's throne, as long as Segismundo is safely locked away.
Rosaura and her servant Clarin, entering Basilio's realm, stumble upon Segismundo's prison and wind up in Basilio's court, awaiting probable execution. They're pardoned, however, because Basilio has had a change of heart; perhaps he made a grave mistake 25 years ago, and Segismundo is worthy to rule after all. He devises a test. Segismundo will be drugged and brought to the palace to awake in prince's garb. If he behaves himself, he gets the throne. Otherwise, he'll be drugged again and returned to the tower, led to believe that his king-for-a-day adventure was merely a dream.
Of course, after 25 years of being treated like a hamster in a cage, Segismundo isn't fit for company; he's selfish, vicious, and obviously everything the astrologers said he'd be. So, having made an enemy of everyone except, perhaps, Rosaura, who is both attracted to and repulsed by him, he is returned to his tower while Rosaura remains at court plotting Astolfo's demise.
But the story doesn't end there. Segismundo has a chance to win the kingdom by force, but he's thoroughly disoriented. Was his day in the palace really a dream? Can he trust any of his waking moments to be real now? "Since life is a dream," he says, "I know we don't truly wake up until we die." And so "in a life like this, hope is too risky." Yet he is compelled to act, knowing all the while that everything could disappear in the flutter of an eyelid. Under these circumstances, what sort of man should he be?
This may all seem as heavy and intricate as a burlap mantilla, but Calderón lightened the proceedings with a great deal of humor and even self-parody. Rivera redistributes the comedy; Clarin, originally the standard comic-relief servant, here is a gentle cynic with some gravity, while Calderón's fairly colorless Astolfo and Estrella now become preening, fatuous schemers. But Rivera maintains Calderón's delicate, Shakespearean balance of humor, melodrama and moral debate.
There's a second sort of tone, though, that Rivera fails to carry off: He has made a jarring contrast between the characters' periodic poetic monologues and their modern-idiom dialogues. In this context, anachronistic references to cold showers and lines like "give me a break" make the humor intrusive and artificial, rather than character-driven. Rivera also moves the action from Poland to Spain. That gives a break to underutilized Hispanic actors, but it really seems more an excuse to toss in a handful of Spanish phrases and a couple of references to Spain's rape of the New World--cheesy bait to lure postcolonial critics out of the ivory tower and into the theater.
Once they and the rest of us are in the theater, however, the curtain rises on a production that could hardly be bettered. Joe McGrath's set is an ink sketch grown to theatrical proportions, separating the characters from the waking world and removing them another step from the audience's reality, placing them on something more like a page than a stage. Farrah Varga's costumes anchor most of the characters in the 17th century, except that in Segismundo's nightmare prison he's guarded by masked, tuxedoed figures. Jim Klingenfus' sound design sets the mood perfectly, with music drawn largely from the Spanish Renaissance and Baroque periods.
And then there are director Barclay Goldsmith and his cast. Goldsmith resists any impulse to send the comedy over the top, and he keeps in mind that he's directing Calderón/Rivera's Sueño, not Strindberg's surreal A Dream Play. Some of these characters may have a tenuous grip on reality, but their interactions are as rich as any fleshly creatures'. Early on we learn from some simple physical interaction that, to Rosaura, Clarin is a father figure, best friend and, perhaps, potentially something more. Later, the moral authority of Basilio and Rosaura gains visual force by the way their words cause the vicious Segismundo to shrink for a moment back into his forlorn prisoner's squat.
Goldsmith has assembled a remarkable cast of local talent. There's a fine Lear lurking in Roberto Guajardo's tortured King Basilio. Tom Turner brings dignity and conscience, but never stiffness, to the role of Clotaldo. Julia Matias' Rosaura is courageous, though no stranger to madness herself. Tim Janes is an appealing, nuanced Clarin, not just a duplicate of the similar Jaques character he played in As You Like It for ATC a couple of decades ago. Matthew Staples as Astolfo and Alida Gunn as Estrella indulge in just enough doofiness, but are clearly not brainless cowards. And Andres Alcala is a superb Segismundo, pathetic in his prison scenes as an animal with a man's heart, and chillingly vicious in the palace as a man with an animal's heart.
Over the past 400 years the Spaniards have been wrong about a few little things, like the Inquisition and Francisco Franco, but they've been right about Calderón's Life Is a Dream. It's a compelling, provocative, memorable play. And Borderlands' Sueño, despite Rivera's restless idiom, is a dream production.