Local playwright Caitlin Gilman taps into fiction’s increasingly pervasive dystopia trend with her adaptation of “Life Is a Dream,” the Spanish Golden Age play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Ghost Light Theatricals is presenting the work at Ballard Underground.
As is the case with many re-imagined classics, the updates here feel almost entirely superfluous. The fact that countries have been transformed into corporations and people wear era-bending clothing doesn’t exactly illuminate Calderón’s themes in new and exciting ways. And Gilman’s added futuristic elements put considerable strain on the production, which is woefully inadequate at recreating high-tech holding cells and opulent executive chambers.
Still, the core of Gilman’s interpretation doesn’t stray too far. The narrative structure is engaging and efficient, staying fairly faithful to the original’s series of events, while changing one often maligned character’s fate to give her some more agency. More importantly, Calderón’s lyrical philosophizing remains intact.
The Poland of the original here becomes, in director Roy Arauz’s staging, Polonia, a corporation with a sort of “Brave New World” caste system, where citizens are assigned specific career paths and segregated into sectors. Segismundo (Robert Hankins) has it the worst, imprisoned alone in a virtual reality, barely aware of the real world until an itinerant young woman, Rosaura (Lindsay Evans), and her companion (Gail Hebert) break into his cell while looking for shelter.
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Segismundo is no ordinary prisoner; he’s the son of Basilio (David Klein), the head of Polonia. A prophecy foretold of Segismundo’s potential for great destruction, but a retiring Basilio feels he ought to take a risk on his true heir, much to the disappointment of Estrella (Kelly Johnson) and Astolfo (Gabriel Sedgemore), rival executives jockeying for the head position.
In a production stocked with an enthusiastic but inconsistent cast, the presence of the veteran Klein is an enormous asset. His authoritative but thoughtful Basilio is the kind of polished performance that elevates the work of every other actor fortunate to be in its orbit.
The revenge plotting, hidden identities and political intrigue of “Life Is a Dream” make it narratively irresistible, but its existential ponderings are what make it a classic. Hankins isn’t the most convincing as a suddenly bloodthirsty, capricious Segismundo, but his rendition of the character’s vexed, contemplative soliloquy on the nature of reality and dreams is an admirable version of the play’s signature moment.
Dusty Somers: firstname.lastname@example.org