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Written around 1636 during Spain’s Golden Age, Life Is a Dream is a play about a prince who has spent his life imprisoned by his father, the king, because of a prophecy about the son’s power. Now, a brisk and timely new adaptation by Brenna Geffers and Felipe Vergara, onstage at EgoPo, highlights the danger of venal politicians.
In Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s classic play, King Basilio of Poland fears a prophecy that his son Segismundo would destroy the kingdom were he to become king. Now, Basilio’s niece, Astrea, and nephew, Astolfo, are vying for the throne. Basilio decides to release Segismundo and temporarily appoint him king, hoping that his royal lineage will overcome the prophecy’s warning. However, if Segismundo fails this challenge, he will be returned to prison and told that he dreamed his time as a ruler.
Life Is a Dream today
Geffers (who also directs) and Vergara have streamlined the play, excising a romantic subplot, and activated the citizens of Poland, who were mostly background figures in the original. A mysterious “wanderer” (Lexi Thammavong) stumbles upon a group of imprisoned people, attired in white and blindfolded, abandoned by their king. The wanderer proceeds to tell them the tale of Segismundo as the group takes on the roles of the story.
Though set in “a Poland that we could call anywhere else,” Geffers and Vergara connect it to the political divisions and unrest recognizable in the United States and Vergara’s native Colombia. Basilio is brash and boorish, attacking immigrants and refugees, as well as a new generation calling for change from their leaders. Meanwhile, the people must choose between the brutal law and order of Astrea or the detached intellectual privilege of Astolfo. Kyra Zapf’s costumes depict these differences in Astrea’s followers, who wear white riot gear, and Astolfo’s, who wear pink pussy hats and carry tennis rackets. Neither of these potential leaders seems particularly invested in the people of Poland.
Haunting, bracing, fleet
Geffers has assembled a multi-talented and tight-knit ensemble of performers who in addition to their acting roles sing the show’s haunting songs and execute Hassan Syed’s bracing choreography. Keith Conallen is booming, glib, and arrogant as the king, both repellant and charismatic. Vanessa Sterling brings an unpredictable wild energy to Segismundo as he embraces his new power, as well as a desperate, raw rage when he processes his years of trauma. Kishia Nixon stands out among the chorus, emerging as the voice of common sense and integrity who demands justice and accountability.
At a fleet 80 minutes, Geffers and Vergara’s script does not always have the space to fully explore the play’s multitude of themes and ideas, including leadership, nature versus nurture, and responsibility to ourselves and others, dreaming or not. And while the increasingly blurred boundary between the play’s worlds often felt supported by the production’s dreamy reality, I wished for more clarity and less confusion when the audience was inconsistently included as Polish citizens, or the wanderer stepped into the story as an active participant.
Taking the power back
What is clear, and feels timelier than ever, is the play’s distrust in and impatience with corrupt political leaders, which is proudly proclaimed by the artwork on the back wall of Thom Weaver and Alondra Santos-Castillo’s minimalist set. The line “Nothing is more dangerous than an imbecile with power” also received a knowing laugh.
In Geffers and Vergara’s Life Is a Dream, hope lies in the people taking back that power. “You could be Segismundos yourselves,” the wanderer tells the inhabitants of the cave. These dreamers are ready to wake up.
What, When, Where
Life Is a Dream. Based on the play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, adapted by Brenna Geffers and Felipe Vergara. Directed by Geffers. $12-$36. Through March 27, 2022, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or egopo.org.
EgoPo Classic Theater requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination and masking.
Theatre Exile is an ADA-compliant venue with an all-gender restroom.
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