Life's A Dream

Site Installation Theater Ensemble (SITE), New Arts Salon, 17-19 N. Second St., through April 26, 545-8238

Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life's a Dream is the Hamlet of the Spanish "Golden Age" dramatic canon: a play of political intrigue about dynastic succession that constantly gravitates towards metaphysical ruminations about providence, volition and identity. And, like Hamlet, its metaphysical ruminations constantly gravitate toward, and stem from, the paradoxes of theatrical performance.

Prince Sigismund, imprisoned since birth by his astrology-obsessed father, wakes up in his tower prison after his one disastrous visit to his father's court, and is asked to believe that the entire episode was only a dream. Much as Hamlet does when he contemplates the First Player's performance, Sigismund comes to realize that life and identity, like a dream, take on for him a new provisionality, as deeply connected and ultimately as insubstantial as a theatrical performance.

No wonder that three of Philadelphia's smaller theater companies have been attracted to the play over the past few years. The latest production, by SITE, keeps the play theatrically interesting by keeping it close to its theatrical roots. In a tiny attic above an art gallery in Old City (not a bad venue for a play about prisons - the only way out of the room was a single low door), a platform becomes a prison or a throne, a piece of plywood across the rafters serves as the tower, the King's robes of state double as the curtains of his throne room, and a hobbyhorse serves as a rearing steed.

Director Robert Davis intentionally keeps the staging conventionally naive; only occasionally (the electronic trumpet fanfares, some of the costumes, and some of the more pseudo-heroic performances) does this naiveté border on cheesiness.

At the center of Davis' production are performances by two of the quirkiest, twitchiest and most intense young actors in Philadelphia. David Disbrow, as Sigismund, is at the center of one plot; and Maggie Siff, as Rosaura, is at the center of the other (a more conventional Spanish honor-code double-bind plot with an interesting gender inflection).

Disbrow is, as he often is, shifty and weasely; Siff is, as she often is, pouty and grimacy. Disbrow roars and bellows; Siff smolders and shrieks. But Disbrow's peculiar qualities make him completely convincing as a character who has been stifled his entire life, crippled into a self-fulfilling prophecy of his father's worst fears for him; as Disbrow plays it, Sigismund's life-reforming philosophical ruminations in the final act are as painful to him as his initial imprisonment. And Siff's stunning emotional immediacy invites us to travel with her character on her tortured journey over the course of the play, which culminates in a triumphantly hermaphroditic appearance on the battlefield in the final act.

And that brings us to the play's ending. The ending must have worked within the royalist honor codes of early-17th-century Spain. But, to 20th-century eyes, the resolution of the love plots is grievously unsatisfying; and, after all that talk of tyranny and liberation and rebellion, the resolution of the political plot is reprehensibly authoritarian.

When the Red Heel Theatre did the play a few years ago, they played the ending unacceptably straight. (I missed Vagabond Theatre's production in Norristown last year, so I don't know what they did with the ending.) SITE, wisely, plays it all ironically, allowing us - asking us - to find it all deeply unsatisfying. This approach certainly suits Disbrow's tortured and twisted Sigismund.

But the play itself still proves intractable. The irony left the production in a muddle, and left the audience (or me, at least) unsure about what the journey was all about, and whether it was at all worth making.

The wonderfully jingly translation (prepared for a Royal Shakespeare Company production a few years back) is by Adrian Mitchell and John Barton.

-Cary M. Mazer