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Dream On

best Shakespearean romance ever
opens 2001 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season

By Prospero

Ashland, Oregon 2/23-24/2001 | The best production of a Shakespearean romance I've ever seen—or am ever likely to see—is now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Hie thee to Ashland in 2001 to see it yourself, and after experiencing its awesome emotional power, you'll finally begin to understand why the romances Shakespeare penned late in his career were so overwhelmingly popular with their original audiences.

The romance in question isn't The Tempest, however, which the powers that be at Ashland have put forward—somewhat lamely—to anchor their 2001 season.

And it's not even by Shakespeare, though as adapted by director Laird Williamson it's been brought as close to Shakespeare as is humanly possible at this date.

No, the play in question is Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), an enigmatic masterpiece from Spain's Golden Age (circa 1635) that I last encountered in a more literal, if not quite so successful, 1990 American Repertory Theatre production. That production was impressive, and piqued a brief intellectual interest in the psychedelic and existentialist precursors running through the play, together with the oddly political twist of its ending.

lost Shakespeare romance found?

Williamson's adaptation risks the ire of purists by changing the ending to be more like Shakespeare himself would have made it—Jack gets his Jill here, instead of satisfying honor and gaining a political alliance by marrying her to her ravisher—vastly increasing the emotional resonance for an audience weaned on the Bard. He also recasts a literal translation of Calderón de la Barca's original in alliterative pentameters that profess Shakespeare as their master throughout.

What results seems like a lost Shakespeare romance, with Calderón de la Barca and Williamson as the coauthors or transcribers who rescued it from oblivion—not quite the Bard, but you feel he must have touched it.

the best director for romance

This recasting of Life is a Dream as a romance attributable to Shakespeare allows Williamson to do what he does best—direct a Shakespeare romance. At that, he has no peer. Williamson directed the best production of a romance I've ever seen—the Pericles that shone so brightly, if briefly, at the end of Ashland's 1999 season (see my review of the Shakespeare Santa Cruz Cymbeline for more particulars). This is the second best—or the best production of a Shakespearean romance not actually by Shakespeare, which is what I meant when I declared it "the best...Shakespearean romance" above.


What makes a Williamson production so good? Well, to start with he knows how to get just the right kinds of performances—for a romance—from his actors: intensely, quirkily human, yet left somewhat schematic and stereotypical, incompletely made up or determined—and as such capable of changing their character radically right before our eyes.

The audience doesn't admire the characters as individuals of a particular kind so much, but as mutable actors in a profoundly personal and socio-political transformation whose parameters slowly become clearer as the performance winds on. And in the end, when everything that we could hope might happen, finally does, they know how to push just the right buttons with the deftest of touches, so that all the cognitive tension they've developed onstage for us finds release in an irresistible emotional crescendo that breaks like a wave beyond it.

an excellent cast

Special notice goes to Kevin Kenerly—whose Boult was a revelation in the '99 Pericles—as Segismundo, a role whose incredible range and energy this actor seems uniquely capable of bringing to life. Richard Howard—whose turn as the title character in the '99 Pericles was a piece of such perfection that I doubt another actor can match it—brings his immense gift for romance to the character of Segismundo's familial—indeed, literally Oedipal—nemesis King Basilio. Howard has an incredible knack for articulating a growing sense of wonder at his own befuddlement, as fortune slowly turns its wheel and reveals to him what a fool he's been—and continues to be—despite, and because of, his excessive knowledge and wisdom. Howard's nuanced line readings are marvels of pacing and intelligence as well.

Another standout is Tyler Layton, who turns on a dime between arch manipulator and seductive politician as one contender to the retiring Basilio's throne, Estrella. Astolfo, the other, comes alive as a dashing and potent rhetorical presence in the person of Jonathan Adams (alas, only through February 27, according to my Playbill—what's the story here?). And these are just the highlights—the entire cast, with but one or two exceptions (mainly a Bocazas who was too annoyingly Disney for my taste, in a role that demands even better than a Falstaff), was of the highest standard.

part 2: the meaning of life


Copyright 2001 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for
First posted Sunday March 4, 2001.
For further details on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2001 season, see their website.

about the
Oregon Shakespeare Festival

During the past decade or so, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which began as a theater professor's summer project in 1935, has eclipsed its rivals to become the pre-eminent Shakespeare festival in North America.

Actually, it's become more than a festival: it's a full-fledged Shakespeare theater center, with a large year-round staff, impressive plant and facilities, and a season that runs as close to year round as winter weather over the mountain passes into Ashland will allow. The cast and other talent is drawn from across North America, perhaps even further away.

Most of the audience still comes from the San Francisco Bay area, Portland, and Seattle, in about that order—all within a days drive of Ashland.

It's certainly worth the trip for Shakespeare fans from even farther afield. Besides the festival, Ashland is a quaint and charming little tourist town, with plenteous B&B's and even a few hotels catering to visitors. The OSF's own website links to a full complement of travel resources.