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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 405-407
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Life's A Dream
Life's A Dream. By Calderón de la Barca. Court Theatre, Chicago, Illinois. 2 October 1999.
Joanne Akalaitis has long created theatrical worlds rife with the tension of irreconcilable contradiction--the clash of past and present, the ultimate undecidability of gender, the ironies of image and word--an aesthetic made to order for the ubiquitous dualities of Life's a Dream. Walking into the Court Theatre's fairly intimate space, the audience was immediately struck by a set at once simple and baroque, elegant and garish--nothing less than Escher done in bright red. Scenic designer Gordana Silvar created a large, raked platform of red tile, from which a center ramp extended virtually to the feet of the front-row spectators, and which was flanked on either side by a broad set of stairs. Behind and to the right of this austere yet arresting space was a large, hanging mural that recreated a period drawing of two dragons posed ars serpentia. Upstage left were three doors in succession, each bearing a similar period drawing: the palm of a hand, a map of the universe, an eye encircled by a Möbius strip.
The paradoxical nature of this world was extended by the lighting of designer Christine A. Binder. At times, the play's romantic lyricism was accentuated by softening the set's overpowering red and complimenting it with a rich blue wash on the murals and cyclorama. Yet such moments were often undercut by the intrusion of fluorescent lights placed in banks above the stage. While this design strategy obviously served to underscore the schism between the dreaming and waking states, and, in a more Brechtian mode, between theatrical illusion and the realities of production, it also managed to evoke a palpable sense of conflicting historical moments. The audience was lured into a lush romanticism foreign to our postmodern sensibility, only to have it disintegrate into a sterile fluorescent glare that might only be found in a scarlet Bed, Bath, and Beyond. [End Page 405]
This historical slippage was also highlighted in Kaye Voyce's sumptuous costume design. The most stunning juxtaposition between the Spanish Golden Age and postmodern America was embodied in the costumes of Rosaura and her clownish servant Clarion. Rosaura, played by Yvonne Woods, began the show galloping around the stage on a hobbyhorse, dressed in the black velvet and gold-trimmed attire of a virile young matador. Behind her staggered the laggard Clarion, played by Wilson Cain III, in a shiny golden polyester suit and platform shoes, a cross between a pimp and an overgrown club kid. Such contemporary touches were repeated throughout--the band of conspirators late in the play wore leather trench coats, for example--but this never extended to that far-flung array of disparate periods, places, and styles found in other Akalaitis productions. Life's a Dream allowed her to collapse time into a single oneiric moment. The result was the creation of a floating world, suspended in that liminal space between sleeping and waking, between time and timelessness.
Akalaitis was served less well in this respect by the original score, composed by Alexander Balanescu. Where the other design elements evoked this nether region by the provocative juxtaposition of recognizably contrasting elements, Balanescu strove to create a score dark and otherworldly in its own terms. Yet, unlike the stark florescent lights, the music served neither to underscore the thematic dualities nor provide critical distancing. The result, for the most part, was simple discordance. The one outstanding exception was a song composed for Rosaura's soliloquy late in the play. In perhaps the most moving scene of the production, Balanescu's spare and plaintive minor key added enormous depth to Rosaura's introspective, "I dreamed I was a clown in a dream--then I woke to find I was a dream in a clown."
John Barton and Adrian Mitchell's translation and adaptation, despite its British origin, has a contemporary feel that lent itself well to the sometimes muscular American way it was tackled...