The theatrical works of María Irene Fornés are generally big, bold and unafraid to move far away from the realm of realism toward the absurd, magical and surreal. Part of the genius that we see in Fornés’ body of work is her reliance upon movement and space to not only propel storylines forward but to give rise to those storylines in the first place. Fornés was a firm believer in utilizing every inch of the stage and of the actors’ bodies for that matter to tell a story, and in her adaption of Pedro Calderón de La Barca’s 17th-century play, “Life is a Dream,” we get to see the true mastery of Fornés’ theatrical process come to life.
The brilliance here lies in how the “realness” of the various characters is set against such a fantastical backdrop—a nod to both playwright and director.…riveting to watch…audiences are treated to a thrillingly comprehensive dramatic experience.
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, who was just nominated for a Tony Award for directing “Ain’t No Mo’,” “Life is a Dream” is in many ways a large, sweeping production that feels ironically intimate in nature. Walker-Webb does an ingenious job of walking the audience in and out of scenes and settings so as not to overwhelm the senses (and there is certainly a lot up on that stage by way of sensory experiences), while at the same time, his direction inspires theatergoers to feel as though they are in fact on an epic adventure through some sort of 17th-century fairytale. The brilliance here lies in how the “realness” of the various characters is set against such a fantastical backdrop—a nod to both playwright and director.
The story centers on Segismund (Jak Watson), the true heir to the throne of Poland who was banished from the kingdom by his father, King Basilio (Nancy Linden—a brilliant casting decision that plays quite effectively into the fluidity of nature and reality here), who relies heavily upon astrological cues to make big life decisions. Segismund, prompted by Basilio’s fear of what the stars reveal, is therefore condemned from infancy to live his life chained and imprisoned. The king, however, contemplating his own mortality and subsequent reign’s end, undergoes a change of heart…twenty-some years later—thus ensues a series of events that will remake the kingdom and dramatically transform the lives of the key players. Cousins Estrella (Andrea Morales) and Astolfo (Kenè Chelo Ortiz) are also contenders for the about-to-be-vacated throne. Their love-hate relationship is as much about extremes as is everything else in this play.
The key to what makes this production so riveting to watch is the physical comedy. The actors throw themselves entirely into every speech, every sentence, every word; it’s not just about saying the lines, it’s about embodying them through actions and expressions—very much a hallmark of Fornés’ work. The character of Clarin, for example, (Christopher Sears who expertly reimagines a type of Shakespearean fool) is a product of both wit and physical comedy. The Angel—a truly haunting portrayal by O’Malley Steuerman—does not even speak, but rather sings and wafts about the space leaving their ethereal imprint on all of the characters.
This ensemble cast does a spectacular job of interpreting a 17th-century Spanish classic as reimagined by the artistically unfettered vision of one of the foremost 20th-century Latina playwrights for a modern-day Baltimore stage—no easy task. Jak Watson’s Segismund compellingly struggles with the reality-non-reality of his situation. If he fails to live up to the king’s expectations, he will once again be imprisoned, having remembered nothing of his experience—hence, the “dreamlike” nature of his existence. Linden as the king carries herself with a quiet dignity that serves as a sort of balm juxtaposed with the outrageousness of several of the other characters. Erin Margaret Pettigrew plays Rosaura—perhaps the most problematic to place within this assortment of characters (and within this narrative), and yet Pettigrew somehow manages arguably the most penetrating performance. As battling cousins Astolfo and Estrella, Ortiz and Morales’ playful banter provides some really delightful he said/she said moments of laugh-out-loud comedy. And Gerardo Rodriguez as the dutiful Clotaldo plays the straight man with as much gravitas and intensity as is needed to somewhat ground this otherwise ungroundable (in the best way) production.
Another major aspect of this play are the elements of production that combine to create the type of world one can only imagine Fornés had in mind. From Anton Volovsek’s larger-than-life scenic design—a perfect perch for a resident Angel, to kindall houston almond’s wonderfully whimsical and surrealist costumes, to the dynamic sound and lighting effects by Tosin Olufolabi and Cha See respectively, audiences are treated to a thrillingly comprehensive dramatic experience. Baltimore Center Stage’s production of “Life is a Dream” puts the exclamation point on a season that saw a pretty diverse array of genres and performances. That Fornés, whose work often defies genre, closes things out seems somehow appropriate.
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
“Life is a Dream” runs through May 21, 2023 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore MD 21202. Information and tickets are available by calling the Box Office at (410)332-0033, Tuesday-Friday, 12-5 pm or by going online.
COVID policy: For patrons who prefer not to be around unmasked people, masks are required on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturday matinees. Masks are optional on Thursdays, Saturday evenings, and Sundays. For more information, visit the theater’s COVID page here.