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Spain’s dramatic Golden Age comes to light in Cal Shakes’ ‘Dream’

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Foreground, from left, Tristan Cunningham and Sean San Jose appear in California Shakespeare Theater’s “Life Is a Dream.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The California Shakespeare Theater has built its reputation on works by its namesake and other English language playwrights, but with Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is a Dream,” the company takes a rare turn into the Golden Age of Spanish drama.

It’s quite a leap, considering that Calderón’s 17th century masterwork, originally titled “La vida es sueño,” is long, densely plotted and written in poetic Spanish.

But the new production, directed by Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco and employing a crisp English translation by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, delivers a largely engaging 100-minute tale of power and justice, truth and illusion.

“Dream” is set in the court of King Basilio, whose adherence to astrology convinced him that his son, Prince Segismundo, was born under a bad sign.

Imprisoned at birth, Segismundo has languished ever since in the tiny prison at the edge of Andrew Boyce’s metallic set (Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, Alex Jaeger’s costumes and atmospheric sound by Cliff Caruthers enhance the stark setting.)

As the play begins, Segismundo is seen moaning in his cell. He’s spent a lifetime of misery there, but when Basilio, still believing that Segismundo is a monster, decides to test him, the prince suddenly finds himself freed.

At first, Segismundo lives up to the king’s prophesy, committing a terrible act that sends him back to prison. But fate conspires to release him again, this time with very different results.

As he makes his way through court intrigue, revenge plots, hidden identities, and regime changes, Segismundo emerges an intriguing hero – one who’s never quite certain whether his experiences are real or imagined.

Greco, in her Cal Shakes debut, endeavors to keep things moving, and Cruz’s translation trims much of the play’s lofty flights and lengthy expositions. Even so, the action occasionally stalls in the Byzantine twists of the convoluted plot.

The cast carries it through. Sean San Jose is forceful as the tormented Segismundo, moving with mercurial energy through the character’s trials and delivering his grand soliloquies with fervor.

Adrian Roberts makes an imperious Basilio and Julian Lopez-Morillas is a compassionate Clotaldo. Amir Abdullah’s Astolfo and Tristan Cunningham’s Estrella mesh well as competing heirs. Sarah Nina Hayon is articulate as the cross-dressing Rosaura and Jomar Tagatac is endearing as her Sancho Panza-like servant, Clarin.

Jason Kapoor, Carlos Barrera, and Kaiso Hill round out the cast as soldiers and rebels.

With its family separations, human longings and meditations on destiny and free will, the play often feels Shakespearean in scope. It may not be Shakespeare. But it’s a pretty good “Dream” for midsummer.

Life Is a Dream
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Aug. 2
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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