A Spanish classic at Cal Shakespeare

Cal Shakes mounts a dream of a play


When I was a kid, a bouncy song called “Sh-Boom,” featuring the lyric, “Life is but a dream,” was a big hit.  So was the movie The Bad Seed, about a sneaky monster of a child.  Though I couldn’t have guessed it, I had butted up against plot elements of 17th century Spanish playwright Calderon de la Barca’s classic, Life Is a Dream, now strutting its stuff, in a translation by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz, at Cal Shakespeare.

So how do bad seeds and dreams conjoin in Calderon’s play?  Imagine your prescient Aunt Clara, who is annoyingly right about just about everything, has whispered in your ear that your newborn son will grow up to ruin your life.  To sidestep the prediction, you lock the kid away when he’s young, without telling him why or who he is.

Sure, you wouldn’t lock up your kid, but you’re not the Spanish regent, Basilio, in Calderon’s play.  He’s got a kingdom to lose, so he puts his son Prince Sigismundo in the hands of a trusted elder named Clotaldo., who acts as Sigismundo’s jailer. Years pass.  The boy grows into a young man who is tormented by his isolation and ignorance, when two travelers, Rosaura, disguised as a guy, and her servant, Clarin, stumble across him in his mountain prison.  Because they’ve strayed where they shouldn’t, Clotaldo arrests them, but not before he realizes, without her guessing the truth, that Rosaura is his daughter.

What a coincidence!

Ibsen it ain’t.  Calderon isn’t after verisimilitude..  He aims at an entertaining (and moralizing) romance, the kind Shakespeare and Moliere did well, and in this one he’s as good as they.  In fact Life Is a Dream is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

It features two other aspirants to the throne: Basilio’s nephew Astolfo, who was once Rosaura’s suitor, and Basillio’s niece, Estrella.  Struck with doubt about that long-ago prediction, Basillio decides to free Sigismundo for kingly try-out.  If Sigismundo fails, they’ll tell him his chance at ruling was all a dream, and fail he does, at first.  Throw in a rebel army and some surprise revelations, and you’ve got a tangled tale that gets neatly untangled at the end, amidst reconciliations and the tinkle of wedding bells.

Directed by Loretta Greco, the Cal Shakes production takes a while to get off the ground, but after lift-off it wings it nicely.  Scenic designer Andrew Boyce provides a sweeping curve of an elevated platform to frame the action, and Alex Jaeger (costumes), Christopher Akerlund (lighting) and Cliff Carruthers (compositions and sound) add to the show’s professionism.

The capable cast features Sean San Jose (Sigismundo), Julian Lopez Morillas (Clotaldo), Sarah Nina Hayon (Rosaura), Adrian Roberts (Basilio), Tristan Cunningham (Estrella), Amir Abdullah (Astolfo), and Jomar Tagatac (Clarin).  Jason Kapoor, Carlos Barrera and Kaiso Hill fill out the ensemble.

Life Is a Dream plays at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda until August 2nd, followed by the Charles Ludlam farce, The Mystery of Irma Vep, and then King Lear.  For tickets/information call 548-9666 or visit