A Master's Voice

Though contemporary theatergoers have long favored the narrowly focused view of dramatists such as Arthur Miller (who's still writing plays that reflect mostly American concerns), a growing number of contemporary directors are gravitating toward old hands such as Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, who crafted dramas that capture the essence of an entire age. Which might begin to explain why the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Calderon de la Barca's masterpiece, Life Is a Dream, is, all in all, the company's finest effort this season.

Exquisitely directed by Laird Williamson (who also adapted this world-premiere version of the story from a literal translation by Jennifer McCray Rincon), the DCTC production features a first-rate cast of performers, many of whom deliver their most accomplished portrayals in recent memory. There are also eye-popping costumes by Andrew V. Yelusich and an evocative set of original musical compositions by Lee Stametz that underscore Williamson's sometimes operatic approach.

As the play begins, we learn that Segismundo (John Hutton), a cave-dwelling prisoner, is the rightful heir to Poland's King Basilio (Jamie Horton), an astrology-obsessed monarch who as a younger man banished his infant son because Segismundo's star charts foretold disaster. However, an elder Basilio has a change of heart and commands Segismundo's guard and tutor, Clotaldo (William Denis), to take the young prince to court so that his kingly potential might be assessed. Naturally, the wild and woolly Segismundo has a hard time blending in with the more refined courtiers. As a result, Basilio promptly returns his son to the Polish countryside and instructs Clotaldo to tell his protege that the whole episode was nothing more than a dream. But the clownish Bocazas (Leslie O'Carroll) and her mistress, Rosaura (Jacqueline Antaramian), cross paths with the twice-banished prince and, in a somewhat complicated turn of events, accompany Segismundo on his journey toward self-realization.

Several notable portrayals complement Williamson's visually stunning production. Leading the company is O'Carroll's brightly costumed chucklehead, whose quick quips and numerous pratfalls earned gales of laughter from opening-night audience members, most of whom also held their breath during O'Carroll's brilliant rendering of Bocazas's demise (in which the mortally wounded buffoon reacts to her injury by pulling handfuls of red feathers from her side). Antaramian's passionate Rosaura is an intriguing mixture of righteous anger tempered with filial responsibility. And as Rosaura's mother, Mercedes Perez uses her soaring singing voice to hauntingly foreshadow--and later, beautifully unify--the play's many conflicts.

Even though Hutton and Horton are not cast strictly according to type (Horton is at least twenty years younger than the king, and Hutton is nearly that many years older than an ideal Segismundo), both nonetheless deliver riveting portrayals. Relying on a catlike physicality and expressive voice, Hutton reaches his character's apotheosis midway through the second act with a mesmerizing soliloquy concerning life's transitory nature. "Nothing in life is ever lost; in time, the things we do come back to us," he says. As the aging Basilio, Horton performs a virtual disappearing act behind an elaborate facade of wig, makeup and costume, all the while artfully transforming himself into the elderly monarch. And Hutton and Horton's one-on-one episodes crackle with tension and excitement.

A few anachronistic bits of dialogue (such as "Amen to that!" and "That rickety geezer king") are jarring in the context of Williamson's otherwise poetic and listenable adaptation. And the first fifteen minutes of this production are difficult to follow even for those already familiar with Calderon de la Barca's play. Still, Williamson and his superb cast manage to illuminate the enduring themes of a dramatist who, like Shakespeare before him, mythologized the past in order to more effectively capture the spirit of the present.


Life Is a Dream, through June 13 at the Stage Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.


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