Review: SUEÑO at Trinity Rep

Smart, stylish production of this clever version of a classic

By: Apr. 14, 2022
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Review: SUEÑO at Trinity Rep

The source material of Sueño may be 400 years old, but a brilliantly updated script, combined with the stunningly beautiful production currently onstage at Trinity Rep make this a fresh, relevant -- and darkly funny -- must-see experience.

Playwright José Rivera started with the 1635 classic of Golden Age Spanish theater, La Vida es Sueño (Life is a dream) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Nominally about a king who exiles his just-born son to a prison when astrologers predict he will turn out evil, it explores issues of illusion and reality, free will and determinism, and questions about the nature of duty and honor.

Rivera's 1998 script manages to capture the ornate style of Calderón's original, translated into an English vernacular with metaphors updated for contemporary audiences (and a change to the ending to reflect today's sensibilities). The language throughout is vivid and beautiful, with appropriately florid monologues and razor-sharp ripostes. Couple that with vibrant direction by Tatyana-Marie Carlo -- which includes a framing device that wraps the entire story within the sound stage of a telenovela -- and you have two and half hours of delightful theater.

The play kicks off in a way that perfectly sets up that frame tale, with a breathtaking introduction of the cast, posing amid glitzy lighting and sound effects, hair flowing in the wind (from a machine, hauled out by one of the black-clad stagehands who scurry around the action throughout the show).

We meet King Basillio (played with delightful verve and wry winks by Anne Scurria) and their noble lieutenant, Clotaldo, as they deal with the birth of the son whose evil has been foretold. Basilio orders Clotaldo to confine the boy, Segismundo, in a mountain prison, where he will be the sole contact with the world. Clotaldo is a thoughtful, duty-bound, and torn by rival loyalties to his charge and the king, and Rudy Cabrera turns in an outstanding performance in this pivotal role.

Years later, two travelers, Rosaura and Clarin, stumble upon the prison and the now-grown Segismundo. Rosaura, a woman dressed as a man, is on a mission of revenge against a member of Basillio's court; Clarin starts out as sidekick and comic foil. Catia, in her Trinity Rep debut, brings a superb range to Rosaura, filling her ever-ratcheting-upward arc with rich authenticity. Andrew Gombas brings Clarin to life in a performance filled with clever moments, and the pair have a powerful "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" energy together.

Daniel Duque-Estrada is simply amazing as Segismundo. The king decides to drug his son and restore him as heir to the throne (reasoning that he can always drug him again if it doesn't work out and convince the boy it was all a dream.) Duque-Estrada has to transform from an untutored prisoner, to an enraged tyrant, to a tortured skeptic unsure of reality, and he handles every beat with assurance. It's a powerhouse performance.

No play of this genre would be complete without a bit of palace intrigue, and it's supplied with delightful, hilarious turns by wanna-be royalty Estrella (Jihan Haddad) and Astolfo (Alfredo Antillon). Haddad's enormous hoop skirt will only fit through doors sideways, and she plays the coquette with a heart of ice with deft assurance. Antillon is like the cover of a romance novel come to life, inviting the audience in on the gag; he is pitch-perfect.

Carlo's direction, combined with the intricately beautiful set design by Patrick Lynch, constantly keeps things moving (Literally: parts of set set rapidly rotate to move between scenes; an eclipse machine on rails above the stage ticks off time.) Christina Watanabe's lighting and Germán Martinez sound design are both spectacular, adding depth and presence to the action. And Shahrzad Mazaheri's costumes are jaw-droopingly beautiful. All the the technical teams who worked behind the scenes to mount this complex production deserve kudos.

Sueño is one of those rare plays that is able to deal with weighty philosophical issues (nature vs. nurture, dream and reality) while avoiding the pitfalls of metafictional navel gazing. And it does so by tiptoeing right up to the edge and giving the audience a knowing wink. This production is an absolutely perfect union of directorial approach and superb script, and anyone who enjoys a thoughtful, fun evening at the theater is in for a heck of a good time. Highly recommended.

Sueño at Trinity Rep. 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI, April 14-May 8. Wed-Sun 7:30, Sat-Sun 2pm. Open caption performances May 4, 7, and 8 at 2:00 pm; May 4, 5, 6, and 7 at 7:30 pm. Sensory-friendly performance April 27 at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $27-$77 available at the box office, (401) 351-4242 and online at Masks and proof of vaccination required.

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