Most U.S. theater companies rarely present world theater, nor do they devote much stage time to pre-20th-century classics — with the exception of the well-represented Shakespeare.
So Main Street Theater ’s season-opening production of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17th-century classic “Life Is a Dream” is a change of pace, even for this enterprising company. The production, opening Thursday, will be the translation adaptation by contemporary Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Anna in the Tropics.”
Calderon (1600-1681) is often called “the Spanish Shakespeare,” and “Life Is a Dream” is considered his masterpiece, a pinnacle of Spanish Baroque literature. The allegorical fable centers on Prince Segismundo, who’s been imprisoned since infancy because of a prophecy that, if allowed to rise to power, he would prove a monstrous ruler and bring disaster to the country. When Segismundo is grown, the King reveals to the court that Segismundo did not die in infancy as they’d been told and releases the prince to find his own fate as ruler — with alarming results.
An allegory on the human condition, “Life Is a Dream” reflects on the clash between predestination and free will.
MST founder and artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden long wanted to present “Life Is a Dream” but couldn’t find a translation that satisfied her.
“My interest peaked,” she says, “when my husband saw a production in Atlanta and came back raving about it. After that, I read various translations, but I couldn’t find the qualities that had so excited him. A couple of years ago, I saw it performed in Spanish at Repertorio Espanol in New York and, even though I don’t speak Spanish, I’d read enough to know what was going on, and the actors conveyed what was so special in the play, its poetry.”
Not long after, Udden read Cruz’s version, which premiered in 2007 at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif.
“I immediately knew that was the one I wanted to do,” she says. “Reading it, I understood what made the play great. It’s more poetic (than other translations), with an elegant, elevated quality in its language. I think it’s important, as much as possible, to get the quality of the original play — its spirit, ideas and sense of language.”
Udden asked Pablo Bracho, who served as assistant director for her 2009 staging of “The House of the Spirits,” to direct the Calderon play.
“I’d always wanted to do it,” Bracho says, “so I was delighted when she suggested it.”
Bracho’s acting credits include “Our Lady of 121st Street” at the Alley Theatre and “Blood Wedding” at Stages.
“Spanish is my first language, and I’ve read Calderon’s original,” he says. “Cruz’s version is not a word-for-word translation. He tightened the play, brought out some things and trimmed other moments. But it’s true to the story; the flow, for the most part, is the same. What I like best is that it contains a similar poetic charge, even though it’s written in prose.
“There are so many layers to the story,” he adds. “You want to get the meaning across without complicating it too much, and let the audience take from it what they want. It helps that Cruz’s translation is direct and accessible.”
Bracho notes that Calderon managed to touch on issues of science and religion without arousing the ire, as so many did, of the Spanish Inquisition.
“It’s interesting to me that he did this without becoming a target,” he says. “And the play remained intact. But this story uses religion and science as tools for what happens to the characters. It’s made clear that cataclysmic things happened when the prince was born. The earth shook, rivers ran with blood, his mother had nightmares and then died in childbirth. But the play is not a didactic piece teaching us to believe one thing or the other, to side with science or with superstition.”
Yet there is a strong sense of sympathy for the wronged prince.
“You have to feel for him,” Bracho says. “The King says, ‘I should probably give him a chance and see if the stars predicted correctly.’ But if you set him free, are you opening Pandora’s box? That’s the other side. And when he behaves badly. ...”
But let’s leave something for playgoers to discover.
Calderon set his original in Poland, Bracho says, simply because that was shorthand for “some far-off place.” This production doesn’t specify the setting, just an unnamed mythic kingdom at some point during the 1600s.
The play’s timeless aspects are more important to Bracho.
“It expresses the sensation, that everyone has at one time or another, of stopping short in the midst of something and wondering, ‘Am I dreaming this, or is it really happening?’ ”
‘Life Is a Dream’
Previews: 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19
Regular run: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays from Sept. 20 through Oct. 21
Where: Main Street Theater, 2540 Times
Tickets: $20-$40; 713-524-6706; mainstreettheater.com