Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17th-century classic “Life Is a Dream” would have been the perfect tapestry for a Verdi or Meyerbeer opera, and Jose Rivera’s new adaptation of the play sings powerfully. The playwright performs a high-wire act that keeps “Sueno” continually teetering between the ridiculous and the sublime. James Goldman attempted a similar feat with his royal family catfight “The Lion in Winter,” but where his juxtaposition of the lyric and the vernacular merely sank into the banal, Rivera orchestrates his modern barbs so that they throw into relief, rather than undercut, the extended poetic riffs from another, grander century.
“Sueno” begins with one of those offstage birthing scenes that leaves the newborn bloodied, the mother dead and the father, in this case, King Basilio of Spain, pissed as hell. He somewhat overreacts and sentences his only son, Segismundo (John Ortiz), to life imprisonment in the local tower.
Twenty-five years later, when the king’s niece and nephew, Princess Estrella (Rebecca Wisocky) and Duke Astolfo (James Urbaniak), come looking to take over his throne, they are bummed to learn that the son will be released from prison to claim his birthright.
Basilio sets up a test of sorts for his adult son: If he behaves himself, Segismundo gets to be king. If not, it’s back to eating roaches and rats. Segismundo fails his father’s test rather miserably: After gouging out a guardsman’s eyes with his bare hands, the prince next tries to wring the neck of a servant girl, Astrea, when she does not immediately return his protestations of love at first sight. Unbeknownst to the rest of the court, Astrea is actually Rasaura (Michi Barall), a noblewoman, who has been raped by Astolfo and is out to right that wrong.
Segismundo’s return to the tower is not a happy one, but his dilemma inspires a fruitful existential funk that leads him to ask, “Who’d want to be king knowing that when he dies he’s going to wake up and be nothing?” He throws in a little blasphemy, too: “All dreamers are the dreams of God — and what is God Himself, but the greatest dream of all?”
The power of Rivera’s language is never greater than in Segismundo’s final moments of despair-driven lucidity. That “Sueno” ends happily a few minutes later is the playwright’s last leap from the sublime to the ridiculous, and one that the audience is happy to make with him.
Rivera bestows many wonderfully, anachronistically base jokes on a court jester, Clarin (David Greenspan), who switches his opinions faster than a politician in primary season. Greenspan nearly steals the production, but Ortiz’s powerhouse performance snatches the focus back whenever the play requires it.
Barall is all sly irony as Astrea, and grows effectively from wild kitten to vengeful lion when brandishing Rasaura’s sword. In arguably the evening’s most difficult if not incomprehensible role, Silva summons the necessary moral weight for Basilio without fussing over the fact that his own original sin is at the core of this tragedy.
Director Lisa Peterson possesses a real flair for the grand gesture as well as the low kick in the rear. To her credit, the play’s continual flip-flopping of the two never turns into mere shtick — well, once or twice maybe — and she keeps every cast member on the same note, even when the script’s various tones begin to turn fast and furiously in the windstorm of Rivera’s words.
The “Sueno” set is the closest thing the New York theater has to Cinemascope this season. To give the action the sweep of a enormous panorama, designer Riccardo Hernandez reduces the depth of the tiny MCC stage to a mere catwalk and stretches its length to the far reaches of the auditorium itself. Christopher Akerlind’s dramatic lighting is overstatement at its most effective.