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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dream vs. Reality in Spanish Tale

"Life Is a Dream" at the Vakhtangov Theater is an intimate work put together in a small space largely by a group of young men and women who are still feeling their way into their profession.

All of those qualifiers are meant as complimentary.

Andrei Prikhodko, in his first outing since co-directing the atmospheric "Tanya-Tanya" at the Fomenko Studio two seasons back, has created a more modest, but undeniably affecting version of the most famous play by the great 17th-century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Prikhodko's actors, primarily still in the early stages of their careers, bring to the show an attractive urgency and freshness. In the narrow confines of a theater-in-the-round on the Vakhtangov's third floor, it all adds up to an admirable outing.

What I would call the production's biggest drawback -- its obscurity -- probably originates in one of the director's strengths: his ability, or at least strivings, to build ambience.

In this story about the consequences of the Polish Crown Prince Segismondo being held for his entire adolescence and youth in a dungeon by his father, the King, much is enigmatic and unexpected. The setting is often Segismondo's prison cell, and, as indicated in the title, the line between reality and dream is frequently blurred.

Prikhodko, with the lighting designer Vladimir Amelin, keeps the stage in almost perpetual dimness, if not darkness. Moreover, Polina Adamova's essentially blank set, rimmed by deep crimson drapes hanging behind the four quadrangular sections of spectators, offers little or no orientation. Rather than evoke a sensation of uncluttered clarity, a good thing had it been done unequivocally, the visuals here tend to be murky.

But Calderon's people, and the actors playing them, are what bring this performance to life. Especially effective are Pavel Safonov as the suffering Segismondo, and Alexei Kravchenko as the spry court jester whose fun and games eventually take him too far and cost him dearly.

King Basilio (Alexei Kiryushchenko) had his son Segismondo locked away at birth to counteract a prophecy that the boy would someday harm his father. But after many years, during which Segismondo's only contact with humans was through his tutor, Clotaldo (Alexei Pushkin), Basilio resolves to free his son and test his ability to rule and live among people.

Safonov effortlessly takes his character through the transformation from a lonely, despairing and philosophical prisoner to an impulsive and vindictive crown prince. His first encounter with society, in which the men and women of court appear at a masked ball (in Olga Tumakova's attractive costumes suggesting earth, air, fire and water) is a disaster. He greets the unexpected news that he is a prince by becoming cruel and arrogant, although in a meditative moment he admits he is "half beast."

Informed with Calderon's Renaissance outlook, "Life Is a Dream" puts forth the belief that a man has the power to change even though the limitations of a dream-like life are severe. After being thrown back in prison, Segismondo still gets another chance to rule when the people rebel in his favor. This time, he exhibits a new wisdom and moderation that indicate he has disproved the old prophecy of his future tyranny.

Wisdom, for a king at least, also includes the ability to be resolute. As punishment for the jester's pretending to be the crown prince for a few brief, heady moments, Segismondo condemns him to take his place in prison.

Running in tandem with Segismondo's story are several related plot lines. The mysterious young Rosaura (Nonna Grishayeva) is both searching for her lost father, Clotaldo, and on her way to losing her heart to Astolfo (Alexei Zavyalov), a Muscovite prince. He has designs on the Polish throne and, to that end, weaves a web of ultimately futile intrigues with the infanta Estrella (Anna Dubrovskaya).

The diminutive Grishayeva, along with Safonov and Kravchenko, exemplifies the successes of this production. She is equally capable of striking comic gold -- as when she flirts shamelessly with Astolfo before the irritated Estrella -- and of achieving rich, dramatic depth.

Prikhodko's accomplishment was in getting this complex philosophical work also to play as an occasionally fun, engaging and human story. For me, in any case, Segismondo's parting words of "pure hearts forgive" sounded at least as important in the context of this production as his asking rhetorically, "What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction."

Additionally opposing the frequent darkness of mood to good effect is a quartet of minstrels who wander among the characters performing muted Spanish music and occasionally nodding and winking at the goings-on.

"Life Is a Dream" (Zhizn yest son) plays Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. on the Vakhtangov Theater small stage, 26 Arbat. Tel. 241-1651. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.