The fall 2016 Mainstage, “Life Is A Dream,” by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, was adapted into a unique, “palms up” performance by associate professor of drama Kyle Lemieux.
“Palms up” refers to the idea of fundamentally putting the primacy of the performance back into the hands of the actors and the audience. It runs with no intermission, and the actors do not leave for costume changes or to switch scenes. The lights were both on the actors and audience throughout the play, removing the delineation of space between storyteller and audience.
The action is only divided by the actors announcing entrances, exits and movement progressions. Between movements, the actors would, at times, break character, greet the audience, introduce themselves by name and then recount a story of a dream.
These digressions were not scripted speeches, but rather stories of dreams that the actors developed in rehearsal, which allowed the actors to tell them in a natural way on stage.
Lemieux acknowledged that the break between Calderón’s events and the individual discussion of dreams is confusing, but he did not intend that the dreams be forced into Calderón’s narrative.
“[The dreams] allow the audience to have a journey not dissimilar to Segismundo’s journey, beginning from an apprehension and confusion about what is real,” Lemieux said.
The production furthered the intentionally disorienting aspect of Calderón’s original script by playing on the idea of human experience, whether real, a dream, a memory or imagined on a stage, and the significance of experience regardless of circumstance. Although it does not have a linear sequence of events, the story is unified by the strength of each movement reinforcing the same themes.
“[The production] became structured around a traditional symphony structure in the form of movements with rests between each movement,” Lemieux said. “Each of the movements have a particular energy, a particular textual color and a particular performative quality, and each are standalone units that function together.”
The costumes, designed by associate professor Susan Cox were simple, neutral-tone garments that intentionally did not appear to belong to a certain time period or people. The costumes were versatile, with shirts becoming capes, scarves and masks.
The piece was not defined, and thus not limited, by costumes or setting, but it existed as pure story. The piece explored how a story can be manipulated by the circumstances under which viewers perceive it.
The single set consisted of sand, seven metal chairs and a narrow stage crossing the sand. The backstage was closed off by a partition. All actions, including costume adjustments, were done in front of the audience. Through the simplicity of the design, the production was powerful in its rejection of artifices of theatre such as props, exits offstage and multiple sets. The story, winding and unbroken, unfolded wholly in front of the audience.
“I was very cognisant of wanting to build a piece that was thought of as a whole rather than units or acts,” Lemieux said.
The show follows the main character, Segismundo (David Morales), and the supporting Rosaura (Zeina Masri) whose parallel stories reinforce each other. The cast of Madeleine Bishop, Dolores Mihaliak, Morales, Jackson Berkhouse, Nick Moore, Masri and Rachel Polzer, worked as a cohesive unit, but each had individual moments varying from the poignant and dramatic to the comedic.
Emotional themes such as contests for power, tension between parents and children and the weight of true forgiveness colors the production, but “Life Is A Dream” extends beyond the realm of morality play.
The production blurred the line between when theater begins and ends. The actors began arranging chairs on stage at 7:45 p.m., before the show began. The actors addressing the audience directly drew the audience closer into the production, while also reminding the audience that what they were watching was no more real than a dream.
Like Segismundo, the experience of an event, regardless of its reality, can be a successful didactic tool. There was no curtain call or adjustment of the lights to indicate an end to the show. After the final movement the actors invited the audience outside for cookies.
“There is something wonderful, having had the experience of this piece, to go outside and break bread together, particularly sugared bread, with those actors who just gave us the gift of that story,” Lemieux said.