“Life Is a Dream,” Calderon de la Barca’s sublime musing on power, honor and the human psyche, is so rarely performed in English that any appearance would be notable, even an interpretation as tentative and undercooked as Kate Whoriskey’s at South Coast Rep. At least it marks the unveiling of an admirable translation/adaptation commissioned from Nilo Cruz, one that should have life beyond Costa Mesa.
Calderon’s main plot concerns Segismundo (Richard Breaker), imprisoned in a cave at birth by a kingly father (John de Lancie) heeding a prophecy that the prince would age into a cruel usurper. The cure seems to exacerbate the disease: Given a chance to live out the dream of becoming king, Segismundo flunks the test and is sent back in chains.
A secondary plot introduces the violated Rosaura (Lucia Brawley) seeking vengeance against her seducer Astolfo (Jason Manuel Olazabal) to restore her good name. Her valor and integrity are major influences on the prince’s journey from emotional excess to reason and grace.
Reducing the text by at least a third, Cruz substitutes for the original’s multiple rhyming and metric styles a lean, sinewy free verse more reminiscent of Garcia Lorca than the baroque Golden Age: “Cruel land!/You receive me as a stranger,/and as a stranger you inscribe/my name with blood on your sand.”
It’s a muscular, expressive text, but one that doesn’t sit well with Whoriskey’s production choices, which seem capricious at best. Because King Basilio is an astrologer, his kingdom is contrived to look like Mars with glowing planets flown in or carried on poles. The stage is littered by Walt Spangler’s giant triangular, spikey set pieces, pitted like gym climbing walls, spinning and reconfiguring but never resembling anything other than obvious set pieces.
The courtiers and soldiers, costumed by Ilona Somogyi as if in an old Buck Rogers serial, periodically hip-hop across the stage — not the Russell Simmons kind, but actual hopping. As if no one trusted the poetry to speak for itself, lines and whole speeches are arbitrarily sung to music with occasional stabs at flamenco dancing, bringing an unanticipated (and unwelcome) touch of Zarzuela to “Life Is a Dream.”
As cobbled together as show seems, it’s the wholly intellectual conception of the lead that delivers the coup de grace. “I am a man among beasts and a beast among men,” Segismundo keeps saying, but this prince isn’t so much bestial as bipolar, swinging from self-pity to pique and back again as if he were playing Albert Camus’ “Caligula.” That emperor would be a good role for Breaker, but it’s light years away from the “human monster” conceived by Calderon.
If “Life Is a Dream” has any dramatic trajectory at all it’s the transformation of the prince from his prehuman state, but there’s no animal ferocity in this crooning countertenor’s performance, the character ending much the same as he began except in a fancier costume.
Other performances are a mixed bag as befits the patchwork production scheme. Olazabal and Richard Doyle are well-spoken and sincere in a traditionally classical way, while Matt D’Amico is insufferable in his mirthless efforts to inject contemporary comedy. Brawley’s Rosaura, vigorously modern yet eminently in period style, offers the best of both worlds — and we don’t mean Mars and Earth.