Local Arts Reviews


Oscar Brockett Theatre, through March 12

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

Life is a dream. Not really, perhaps, but at least admit you've considered it, especially after a particularly visceral night's sleep. Just last night I experienced a recurring dream I have of falling – not the typical one of falling through the air, but one of ascending a great hill, reaching its summit, and then plunging down the other side in a headlong free fall, waking with a start and realizing that, yes, it was only a dream. But while it was happening ...

Life Is a Dream is the English title of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Spanish Golden Age drama, here retitled Sueño (translation: Dream), adapted for the stage by José Rivera, best known for his plays Marisol and References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot, and produced by the UT Department of Theatre & Dance. While an undergraduate myself, I read this play and remember adoring its story of the prince Segismundo, whose birth was greeted with ominous portents and whom the stars foretold would bring grief to his father King Basilio by plunging Spain into civil strife. In order to avoid this horrible fate, Basilio confines his son to a mountain prison. Twenty-five years later, believing he may have been mistaken, Basilio frees Segismundo and establishes him in his rightful place as prince, but Basilio does so after drugging him, knowing that if Segismundo should prove intractable, he can be drugged and confined again and convinced it was all a dream.

Director Matt Huff takes full advantage of UT's seemingly unlimited resources, especially in the design of the production. Misty Pelas' set is a gorgeous creation of adobe walls. Dominated by two imposing architectural crucifixes and a moon that waxes and wanes, its ambience proves appropriate for both interiors and exteriors. Susana Monreal's costumes cleave to the earthy palette of the set, mixing shades of brown and red and adding leather boots and vests trimmed with metal on the men. While some of the opening night cues ran a bit obviously, Adam Levine's lights were evocative of mood and lovely to look at.

While Huff, with the aid of his designers, seems to have an eye for the visual, the production falls flat in two ways, one major and one minor. The minor: Huff does the sound design himself, and it feels perfunctory and, on at least one occasion, is unintentionally funny. The major: The acting, on the whole, doesn't work. Most of the actors seem to be straining after some seemingly unachievable emotional peak, and the story often gets lost in the emotionalizing. There are exceptions: Larry Pontius is a solid Clotaldo and carries the age of the character well; Sheena Dodds keeps things simple in trusting that she is enough to embody the vampish Princess Estrella; and Ryan Scott is a standout as the flamboyant Duke Astolfo. But even these exceptional performers get caught up in Huff's uninspired staging at the end of the production. (And if you're going to fight onstage with épées, rehearse early and often, or you'll end up with fencing that looks as weak as most of the fencing here.) While an appropriate and excellent selection for what has been a quite eclectic UT Theatre season, I do wish this Sueño had been more, well, dreamy.

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Sueño, Dream, José Rivera, Life Is a Dream, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Marisol, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, UT Department of Theatre and Dance, Matt Huff, Misty Pelas, Susana Monreal, Adam Levine, Larry Pontius, Sheena Dodds, Ryan Scott

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