Welcome to Nilo Cruz's world. He's a playwright who's scaled some of the highest peaks of his art—he's won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, for crissakes. Cruz is famous. He's important. He's made it. And now, he can write whatever the hell he wants: immerse himself in his most personally revealing work, or launch a rabble-rousing political manifesto, or take everybody by surprise with something light and airy.

But for Cruz's latest project, he chose to abandon his world for that of another—undertaking a painstaking translation of Life is a Dream, the acknowledged masterpiece by 17th-century Spanish playwright Pedro Caldern de la Barca. The project took more hours than he cares to count and spread across almost a year.

Fun? Not hardly. Even this week, as his translation of Life is a Dream opens Friday at South Coast Repertory, Cruz recalls the experience as the most difficult project of his life—not so much a dream as a nightmarish pain in his artistic ass.

"It was so difficult to decipher the language," says Cruz, 47, although he is fluently bilingual, having been born in Cuba and lived most of his life in the United States. "It's old Castilian, and there are a lot of words that are archaic; it was a different way of speaking [than contemporary Spanish]. I had to look up so many words and it would take hours on just one tiny segment. There were times I really didn't think I'd ever finish. But little by little I got through."

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Life is a Dream is the third Cruz work to either debut or be developed at South Coast Rep, following Two Sisters and a Piano and the 2003 Pulitzer-winning Anna and the Tropics. The previous plays were steeped in the politics and poetics of Cuba, which the Cruz family fled in 1970. The ongoing saga of that island nation and its people has fueled most of his best work.

With that kind of artistic authority on one of the most fascinating political and social tales of the modern world, what moved Cruz to devote so much time and energy to a play written when the majority of the world didn't even know Cuba existed? Short answer: somebody asked him to.

Before that, however, SCR co-founder David Emmes asked Kate Whoriskey, one of the most talented, visually oriented directors in American theater, if she was interested in directing another play at the Costa Mesa venue. Whorisky offered Life is a Dream, but with a caveat: she wanted Cruz to translate.

Cruz happily accepted the request, although he now admits he really had no idea what he was getting into.

"I'd always loved the play and been taken by it and always wanted to translate it," Cruz says. "But it was very, very hard."

Along the long and arduous way, however, Cruz discovered that Life is a Dreamis a play that, while written nearly 400 years ago, remains vital and timely.

"Like any great play it asks a lot of questions about everything from reality and love, to honor and vengeance," Cruz says. "There are themes of kinship, loyalty, rebellion and the difference between dreams and reality. But there are also characters that, in trying to avoid risk, wind up meeting it head-on. That line is repeated throughout the play because in trying to avoid danger, a king sends his child out of the country but winds up inviting even more problems."

Cruz recognizes some modern-day examples of that.

"It sort of parallels what is happening in our country with the Iraq war," he says. "We saw this perceived danger of weapons of mass destruction and in trying to avoid that danger [by invading] we found ourselves in an even bigger mess. That is a theme that both the director and I were interested in developing."

That doesn't mean Abrams tanks and Apache helicopters engulf the stage.

"I think this is both a classic and contemporary translation," says Cruz. "I think it is very faithful to [Caldern's] essence and maintains his poetry, which is hard to do because there is a rhythm and simplicity to his writing that many [literal] translations don't get and so they come off as too heavy. [This translation] is very easy to hear, read and act."

Reading his translation, the play comes off beautifully lyrical and remarkably intelligent. The existential and epistemological questions it ponders are the same ones that eggheads from Plato to Sartre wrestled with. And it's all wrapped up in a fascinating tale of nature-versus-nurture.

That story revolves around the plight of Segismundo, the son of a king who, immediately after his birth, was exiled to solitary confinement in a mountain tower because his father read in the stars that his son would grow into a murderous beast. But the king, believing he can change fate, orders his now-grown son returned to the palace. After Segismundo awakens from a drugged slumber, he learns he is of royal blood and immediately flies into a murderous rage. The play's primary conflict is the question of whether he can learn to control his violent impulses, and whether he's fated to dream of life as a palace, or a prison.

Though Life is a Dreamis definitely not a play about Cuba, Cruz sees something very Cuban and modern in it.

"The characters are constantly asking questions about the decisions they've made and questioning their existence and whether their reality is a dream or illusion," Cruz says. "And the concept of dreams is always present in my work. In Two Sisters, the sisters escaped their reality through imagination. Escaping through literature was part of Anna in the Tropics. I think that comes naturally to Cubans. Those who live there need to escape the poverty of their existence, and those who have left need to escape the reality of the [country's] situation. And imagination, or art, is the way we choose to escape."


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