Cutting Ball pumps energy into vivid Dream

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Like father like son: King Basilio (David Sinaiko, left) and Prince Segismundo (Asher Sinaiko) square off as their armies face one another in the Cutting Ball Theater production of Life Is a Dream. Below: King Basilio (Sinaiko, center) is beloved by his nephew (Matthew Hannon, left) and niece (Grace Ng), who may be his heirs to the throne. Photos by Fiona McDougall

What a rare treat to have had two productions of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream on local stages this year. First there was California Shakespeare Theater’s production (read my review here), and now we have a brisk, streamlined version from Cutting Ball Theater and its resident playwright, Andrew Saito at the EXIT on Taylor.

Both productions feature extensively adapted versions of the original script, and each reflects the personalities of both the adaptors and the producing companies. Where Cal Shakes’ production benefited from the natural setting and the poetry of the stars overhead providing counterpoint to the poetry on stage, the Cutting Ball production uses Saito’s laser eye to whittle the bulky play down to its essence, and director Paige Rogers delivers a physically exuberant production that makes up in vitality what it might lack in emotional wallop.

From the very start, this 75-minute version of the Dream comes out swinging, or should I say clapping. The actors emerge in the their underwear and scale Michael Locher’s sturdy bleachers set. All the actors get dressed save Asher Sinaiko, who plays the imprisoned prince, Segismundo. He remains in his black T-shirt and boxer briefs for most of the show, until that defining moment when Segismundo, who has fulfilled the prophecies and revealed himself to the be the savage his father feared he’d be, learns from his mistakes and begins to act through wisdom rather than impulse.

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There’s a percussive rhythm to the show provided by the actors (there’s lots of clapping, stomping and patty-cake-meets-drill-team choreography for the ensemble) and by Barry Dispenza behind the drum kit. By the final battle, the beat turns downright (upright) funky, and it’s fresh.

In fact, the whole show feels fresh. Part of that has to do with Saito’s elemental adaptation, which keeps the major plot points and characters and infuses some welcome humor and a whole lot of Yiddish (kvetch, schmo, putz). In the story, many swords are drawn, but on stage, swords take the form of kazoos. And when said kazoos are not being brandished, they are being played to herald the entrance of the king (David Sinaiko), who has decided it’s time to take his potentially dangerous son out of prison and let him rule the country.

The efficiency of the bleacher set means that Segismundo can go from prison (aka under the bleachers) to power (atop the bleachers) in seconds, and with the addition of a spiffy plaid jacket to his black underwear ensemble, he’s almost even human (costumes are by Courtney Flores. Then he starts throwing people out of windows and the dream of civilization and power ends, and he wakes up back in the prison tower.

One of the nice things about Saito’s adaptation is that it feels evenly weighted among the stories. There’s Segismundo and his father (in a lovely touch, David is father to 16-year-old Asher, who is making a mighty strong professional theater debut), but there’s also Rosaura (Sango Tajima) and her father, Clotaldo (Peter Warden), though she doesn’t know he’s her father. Rosaura, with the help of the stalwart (and funny) Clarin (Michael Wayne Turner III) is fixated on exacting revenge from Astolfo (Matthew Hannon), the arrogant royal who besmirched her virtue, but he’s fixated on seizing the throne, even if it means marrying his cousin, Estrella (Grace Ng), who doesn’t have nearly enough to do in this plot.

All this unspools and resolves very quickly, but we get the gist of the plot and its theme of life as a dream and death as an awakening, with everything temporary and constantly in transition. Emotionally, the production doesn’t cut too deep, although there is a doozy of a knock-down, drag-out fight between King Basilio and Segismundo that says a whole lot about the neglected son/absent father relationship.

These adaptations of Life Is a Dream have been grandly entertaining and admirable in their attempt to focus in on the core of the play’s beauty and power. But I think I’m ready for a big, messy, unwieldy version of a Dream – big enough to get lost in and beautiful enough to want to remain lost.

Pedron Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Nov. 1 in a Cutting Ball Theater production at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

Cal Shakes dreams a Dream under the stars

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The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca includes (from left) Kaiso Hill as Ensemble, Jason Kapoor as the Soldier and Sean San José as Prince Segismundo. Below: Amir Abdullah is Astolfo and Tristan Cunningham is Estrella. Photos by Kevin Berne.

There’s so much talk about nature and stars in Life Is a Dream that it seems perfectly natural to be sitting outside on a temperate summer night watching Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play about thwarting destiny and connecting to the deepest truths of human existence.

California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Dream, a beautiful if thorny play, offers the chance to see a work that is all too rarely performed (in my 25 years of writing about theater in the Bay Area, this is the first production of it I’ve seen). Considered one of the treasures of Spain’s “Golden Age,” Life Is a Dream has a Shakespearean feel in its mix of fantasy, soap operatics and complex humanity. In its original form, the play tends to be florid and rather convoluted. The Cal Shakes production, directed by Magic Theatre Artistic Director Loretta Greco, employs a lean translation/adaptation by Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Anna in the Tropics. The new script doesn’t solve all the play’s problems, but it strips the work to its essence and offers a spare but still poetic rhythm that adds lyrical grace to the machinations of the plot.

The ever-remarkable Sean San José plays Segismundo, a prince whose fault was in his stars. At his birth, all signs (and celestial portents) pointed to him becoming a tyrant who would destroy his kingdom. So the King (Adrian Roberts) decided to re-write fate by imprisoning the child for life, chaining him in a desolate cell and thereby, presumably, saving the country from his wrath.

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When the play begins, Segismundo rattles his chain in a metallic prison (set by Andrew Boyce), lamenting the loss of the liberty given to birds and streams. San José is as compassionate as he is forceful – clearly this character is an intelligent, sensitive human being who has been treated like a monster his entire life.

This is the crux of Dream. Is Segismundo destined to be a wretched ruler no matter what? Or can he exert control over his fate and prove the portents wrong? Are human lives mapped out from the start, or is there really such a thing as free will?

All of that is interesting, but the aspect of the play that really crackles is the titular notion of life as a dream. When Segisumndo is released from bondage and put on the throne, his barbarism comes through, and he is thrust back into prison. His keepers try to convince him that his brief time on the throne was only a dream, and that gets him thinking about how life really is only a dream. The thin glass that separates waking and dreaming may be more permeable than we know, so why not throw off expectations and chains (physical or metaphorical) and live life with gusto. Like a dream, it will be over sooner than we know.

San José’s final soliloquy, delivered from the roof of his cell while beckoning to the wide-open sky, is remarkable and emotionally stirring.

Other aspects of the play provide entertaining but uninvolving court drama. There are two love interests for Segismundo, Estrella (Tristan Cunningham) and Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), and he ends up with the wrong one because of courtly rules of honor, and the character of King Basilio, though sturdily played by Roberts, never seems anything more than an insecure ruler who may or may not regret his treatment of his son. There’s a visiting prince (Amir Abudllah) who treats women badly and then pisses off Segismundo, but he’s also more functional than fascinating.

Of the supporting characters, only the jester/clown Clarin (Jomar Tagtac) and the jailer Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas) resonate on a deeper level.

Played out on a set that looks like a section of roller coaster track with internal lighting reminiscent of a Laughlin casino, this Dream belongs to San José’s Segismundo, a man who learns from dreams a powerful way to live his life.

Pedro Cadelrón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Aug. 2 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit
Note: There’s a free shuttle from the Orinda BART station to Cal Shakes beginning two hours before curtain.