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Style and substance: The difficulty of balancing them may never have been more apparent than in the dazzlingly imaginative Sueno, Potomac Theatre Project’s current offering at the Olney Theatre Center. Unless we’re talking about Collected Stories, a PTP joint venture with Theatre J, running at the latter company’s Dupont Circle space. Both productions are beautifully staged, but in each there’s a degree of disconnect between content and packaging, a distancing sort of creative dissonance that cuts against what is unmistakably fine work from most of the parties involved.
Sueno is definitely the more striking case: Life is a dream in Jose Rivera’s play, or possibly an endless waking nightmare—and Jose Carrasquillo’s production imagines it as a fevered futuristic reverie: Spanish nobles speak 20th-century epithets in Shakespearean rhythms, dress like refugees from Babylon 5, and move like characters in some Eastern ritual, wrestling all the while with issues classical (dynasties, empire) and contemporary (family dynamics, imperialism).
The story is of a Spanish prince who, even before birth, is doomed by dreamers: His father sees fearful portents in the stars, whose patterns single out the unborn Segismundo as “a cruel, tyrannical, and outrageous prince,” future destroyer of both king and kingdom. When his wife dies as the prince is born, King Basilio sees the prophecy’s fulfillment unfolding, and he banishes the infant to a life all but devoid of human contact in a prison “carved into the stubborn architecture of a mountain,” a cell that serves as “crib and grave” for an unconscious innocent.
Rivera’s script, a free update of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17th-century classic La Vida es Sueno, offers page after page of startling images, and Carrasquillo meets its substantial challenges with a wild, inventive energy, summoning astonishing stage pictures in an effort to amplify and add to the play’s ideas. With designers Tony Cisek (set) and Ayun Fedorcha (lights), he builds a murky dreamscape of smoke and stars, a place where a mirrored prison can seem as warm and protective as a womb, where a window portal is a sun always on the verge of eclipse, where trapdoors spill washes of bright light upward into dark spaces while pink-haired dukes and white-faced princesses move in halting, stylized patterns, clad in peculiar ensembles of satin, spandex, and cellophane. (The future-chic costumes come courtesy of Alessandra D’Ovidio.)
It’s in this rich territory—which encompasses both Segismundo’s prison and the hardly less curious environs of the Spanish court, where he’s transported suddenly at age 25 in a typically unlikely period plot device—that the prince learns to think of all existence as an intricate, insubstantial set of hallucinations. In Calderon’s original, Segismundo assumes that perspective mostly as a defensive posture, a means of maintaining his sanity when circumstances tell him he’s going mad; Rivera’s adaptation takes the idea several degrees further, seizing on its solipsistic core as a postmodern exploration of Big Issues—questions about free will, paradoxes that place intention and outcome in opposition, and debates about nature vs. nurture and the existence of God not least among them. “To live is to dream,” Segismundo says: “All who live are dreamers, all dreamers are the dreams of God—and what is God himself, but the greatest dream of all?”
But the same script that frames such eternal questions in such timeless language also traffics in “fuck,” “freak,” “virus,” “dandruff,” and a whole host of contemporary expressions—and not just expressions, but ideas and perspectives that seem an odd fit for a play that remains at heart a conventional drama. Try as they might, author and director can’t quite work their inward-looking ideas seamlessly into the weave of such a backward-looking play.
And never mind the subplots—the relatively well-integrated one about the pink-haired duke and the white-faced princess, whose aspirations for the throne help bring about the civil war King Basilio so feared, and the awkward, transparent one about the mystery woman who comes to Spain seeking revenge on the pink-haired duke but falls in love with Segismundo. The latter story, especially, feels awfully inconsequential now that the play’s metaphysical horizons have been broadened, and the production drags whenever Carrasquillo and his cast turn aside from the main action to negotiate it.
There’s much to admire here: Daniel Luna’s hunched Segismundo, his twisted frame the outward manifestation of the spirit that has been cruelly stunted within him; Mitchell Hebert’s proud Basilio, all stentorian voice and dramatic presence, wrestling with what seems an inexorable fate; Christopher Lane’s outrageously jittery Duke Astolfo, menacing beneath an outward layer of mannerism. But whether it’s authorial revision or directorial imposition, this production strays a step or two too far across the line between stylized and self-conscious—and while that’s not quite fatal, it means this probably isn’t the Sueno of anyone’s dreams.
In Donald Margulies’ celebrated Collected Stories, it’s the cast that’s off by just a degree or two: Carolyn Pasquantonio and Halo Wines do terrific impersonations of temperamental writers, but they’re not quite as strong when it comes to creating a relationship.
Wines is Ruth Steiner, renowned writer of penetrating short stories; Pasquantonio is Lisa Morrison, the ambitious acolyte who gradually eclipses and eventually betrays her mentor with a novel that draws on details of Steiner’s life—stories told in the play’s warm middle section, when the women have grown to be friends and colleagues, drinking Bloodys and arguing amiably about “Woody’s little indiscretion” with Soon-Yi.
The two actors have a fine time with Margulies’ smart script, with its sidelong references to “our Michiko” (meaning the chief literary critic of the New York Times) and its oh-so-topical inside jokes about Janet Malcolm. (“Life’s too short for the New Yorker,” Ruth cracks, dancing unaware past the foreshadowing implicit in a conversation about a woman who famously argued that all journalism is betrayal.) For all its fascination with the literati, though, the play is blessedly unsentimental about them: “I took a lot of shit from that man in the name of poetry,” Ruth says flatly, meaning the drunken, self-destructive genius whose connection with her will be what severs her connection to Lisa.
James Kronzer’s set for Ruth’s uptown apartment manages to fill the room with towers of books without crowding out all the air; Daniel MacLean Wagner lights it like a Merchant Ivory movie, with washes of warm gold. Traci Holcombe’s costumes precisely chart Lisa’s evolution from jittery student (in a hopelessly unflattering sweater) to self-assured Chelsea-dweller in enormous platform shoes and a form-fitting gray sweater, and they track Ruth’s decline from no-nonsense brusqueness to querulous ill health with a similar efficiency.
The performers are frequently very good, too: Pasquantonio is every inch the eager, anxious neophyte in the beginning, every bit the seductive new star when Lisa reads from her tainted novel at the 92nd Street Y. And Wines is marvelous in the central scenes, as the two of them settle into their friendship.
But somehow they are never entirely convincing as two people who, between their awkward beginning and their bitter ending, come to care deeply about each other. And so the production ends up seeming a bit like the sort of short story Ruth would never have stooped to write: long on style, a little short on substance. CP