Cutting Ball Theater’s “Life is a Dream,” directed by Paige Rogers and with a new translation from Andrew Saito, is shrouded in intensity. From the beginning of the performance, the barely clothed actors stomp onstage. Lead percussionist Barry Despenza provides pulsing rhythms as the actors clap in unison. This is a unified and loud ensemble.
Yet, for all the convincing acting, compelling drumming and stomping around on stage, the play fails to deliver a balanced, captivating rendition. For the short performance of 75 minutes, Rogers has her actors move with constant rapidity and agility. The play quickly becomes a tiring experience. Consequently, the audience is deprived of the slower moments and quiet pauses that exist in Pedro Calderón De La Barca’s original 1635 text.
“Life is a Dream” is primarily a story about free will and fate, but it is also about betrayal in relationships. The play centers around the imprisoned prince of Poland, Segismundo (Asher Sinaiko), who is not aware of his royal status. Throughout his life, his sole contact has been with his guard, Clotaldo (Peter Warden). Segismundo’s father King Basilio (David Sinaiko) locked him in a tower, believing a prophecy that the prince is bound to bring destruction to the country and the king. Basilio tells his niece Estrella (Grace Ng) and nephew Astolfo (Matthew Hannon) that he will free Segismundo in order to observe him. If Segismundo acts like a prince, Basilio will make him the king of Poland.
Plans quickly go awry. Basilio’s fears of destruction manifest as Segismundo becomes enraged when Clotaldo informs him that he was royalty all along. Basilio places him back in jail and Segismundo is convinced that his freedom was actually a dream.
Sixteen year-old Asher Sinaiko’s performance is impressive. When Segismundo is first placed in the palace, Sinaiko moves confidently, excited for his new life. Watching him and David Sinaiko, who is also his offstage father, is intense, albeit unfortunately brief. Basilio, dressed in a suit and tie, is never onstage too long before he storms off in authorial anger, which renders him unlikable.
The parallel and subplot to Segismundo is Rosaura (Sango Tajima), who feels betrayed by Astolfo, who promised her marriage and then left her for Estrella, his cousin. Disguised as a man, Rosaura treks through Poland to find Astolfo and marry him. Along the way, she befriends Clotaldo. In Saito’s translation, Rosaura is wittier and more confident. She is a character who desires control.
Time does seem to slow down when Rosaura is onstage, particularly with Clotaldo. Rosaura’s disguise includes a drawn on mustache. In one moment of confidence, Clotaldo wipes away Rosaura’s mustache. It’s a quiet gesture of trust, and one wishes for more moments like these in the midst of the action and swift dialogue.
The landscape of the action is minimal. The only set design is a set of massive grey steps that look like bleachers. This sparse set asks for imagination from its viewers — the talked-of palace and tower are nowhere to be seen. The line between reality and dream become blurred, as the wardrobes and set design remain the same — apart from Segismundo, who is given a new blazer when he enters the castle — throughout the entire performance.
The grandest moments of Calderon’s text have been relegated to farcical moments in Saito’s streamlined translation. For example, swords have been replaced by kazoos. In Saito’s “playwright’s notes,” he writes, “We cut numerous lines that I loved but that ultimately proved to be obstacles to a contemporary audience.”
So then what is exactly fitting for a contemporary audience? Much of the beauty of Calderon’s original text is the willingness to take its time. Rogers and Saito both take risks with the classical play, and some risks are exciting — the musicality, the heightened humor. Still, the performance feels too much like a marathon; it’s too easy to miss what makes this play so iconic and worthwhile.