Credit: Stan Weinstein

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Seventeenth century Spain under the Habsburg dynasty saw a flourishing of the arts, and of incest. As the dominant military power in Europe, Spain enjoyed its Golden Age, which gave the world the literature of Cervantes and Lope de Vega and the paintings of Velázquez and El Greco, all under the patronage of a royal family that was busy inbreeding itself to death. By the end of the century, 80 percent of all marriages among the Spanish Habsburgs were between close blood relatives, which produced the famous “Habsburg jaw” as well as extremely high rates of mental illness and infant mortality. It ended with King Charles II (“The Cursed”), charitably described by a French diplomat as “so ugly as to cause fear.” He died at 39, beset by the mind of a child and a tongue so deformed it was difficult for him to talk or chew his food.

Given this history, it was remarkably ballsy of Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the last great author of Spain’s Golden Age, to write a play about an insane prince. But La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) is not intended as an anti-monarchical screed. Calderón was a committed royalist, loyal to the king and Church as both a former soldier and later a Franciscan priest. Yet the play doesn’t portray its royal protagonists in an especially favorable light, from the king (cruel and weak) and prince (crazy and murderous), to the duke and duchess (scheming cousins planning to marry each other). It helps that the play is set, for no other apparent reason, in Poland.

Calderón saw his play as a redemption story, one in which the characters, however troubled and clearly unfit to rule they appear, grow into something like maturity, if not morality. The aforementioned prince is based on the medieval legend of Josaphat, which itself was loosely inspired by the life of Buddha. Josaphat, a prince prophesied to betray the king, is imprisoned, and goes mad before eventually achieving enlightenment. In Calderón’s play, the king, believing his son is destined to murder him, jails his son from birth, then drugs him and lets him out as an adult, only to see him kill a servant and attempt to rape a visiting noble. That visitor is seeking vengeance for a vague dishonor implied to be another rape, but quickly gets sidetracked and sucked into the machinations of the royal court. 

Is this a good play, by modern standards? The way these acts of violence, sexual and otherwise, are resolved is likely jarring to those who see things like rape and murder as big deals. Instead, they are quickly dismissed before serving to facilitate happy endings for everyone. Calderón wasn’t that interested in justice, much less just rule, but rather people learning their place. In the original, the redeemed prince jails one of his rescuers for breaking the rules by freeing him. It’s not presented as ungrateful or sadistic, but rather in line with the duties of a proper monarch.

Spanish playwright Nando López cuts out some of the confusion in this new adaptation by eliminating scenes like that one. With director and GALA co-founder Hugo Medrano (they collaborated on another adaptation, of Lorca’s Yerma), they emphasize the play’s poetic aspects, its meditations on the ambiguous dichotomies of illusion and reality, free will and destiny, and gender, while downplaying the morals that will leave audiences confused, if not appalled. 

The acting of the largely Spanish cast is top quality, anchored by actor Daniel Alonso de Santos as Prince Segismundo, who gives a frenzied performance and gut-wrenching speech in the second act. Mel Rocher, another classical Spanish actor, is excellent as Segismundo’s jailer, Clotaldo, conveying a carefully concealed menace beneath his obsequiousness. Soraya Padrao is confident as the revenge-seeking Rosaura despite the disposable nature of the subplot. And GALA regular Delbis Cardona provides some much needed comic relief as Rosaura’s sidekick.

La vida es sueño is a risky bet for GALA Hispanic Theatre to open its new season. Putting on a baroque-era play is challenging for both a theater company and its audience. For actors, memorizing lines of archaic prose in rhyming couplets is a big investment with uncertain payoff, especially for a play that isn’t staged as often as, say, Hamlet. For audiences, the excessive wordiness requires your eyes be glued to the supertitles—and given the rococo dialogue, they’ll be necessary for Spanish speakers as well. You’ll miss much of the stage action, not that it’s abundant. For a play with lots of threats declared with pointy objects, we get a lot of questionable lessons on personal improvement, but not one decent swordfight.

To Oct. 13 at 3333 14th St. NW. $30–$48. (202) 234-7174.

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