As he would have turned 250 this year, it's fitting to quote seminal Romantic William Blake in addressing South Coast Repertory's Life is a Dream, a new adaptation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 17th century Spanish masterpiece. Blake once wrote that imagination is not a state, it is the human existence itself—implying that civilization and all its laws, wars and restrictions occupies a realm far removed from that of artistic creation and human inspiration.
That conflict between external world and internal soul lies at the heart of Calderón's play, at least as glimpsed through this marvelous whirlwind of a production, graced by Nilo Cruz's richly elegant translation and director Kate Whoriskey's equally rich visual and sonic interpretation.
Dance, music, poetry, flashes of lightning, pyramids of crab legs and drooping nets of black seaweed result in a swirling kaleidoscope of colors, sounds and images as stimulating to the eye and ear as it is brooding and poignant. For a play written so long ago to have such depth and resonance is a testament to the remarkable artistic talents of all involved, dead or alive.
The plot is about as complicated—and plausible—as the 17th century could get: amateur astrologer runs a kingdom and, convinced that his still-unborn son will bring ruin upon his nation, exiles him to a remote prison. Feeling remorse, the king summons his son back, only to find that he is a vicious monster, thanks to growing up in bondage. The son is sent back to his prison and thinks he's only dreamed of his true status. Then, revolutionary troops liberate the newly-discovered prince and civil war ensues.
The real war here isn't one of ballistics and tactics, it's between the angels of our better nature and the demons of our baser side, and Life is an exploration of how individuals can even pretend to be happy in a world marred by that battle.
There's a lot said about fate and destiny, loyalty and honor, dreams and reality, but the ultimate question Calderón and Cruz seem to be asking is how a species capable of creating such abominations as genocide, murder and slavery can also produce Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the Taj Mahal and John Coltrane.
There's no answer given in Life is a Dream, but it's got something to do with imagination and what we choose to do with it. The fact that a play like this even exists shows the question is still one vitally worth asking.
LIFE IS A DREAM, AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. TUES., 7:30 P.M.; WED.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 11. $20-$60.