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In Arts & Entertainment

"Sueno" suffers from uninspired script

A few years ago, contemporary playwright Jose Rivera was asked by the Hartford Stage Company to write an adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca's 17th century drama, "Life Is a Dream." Like any decent storyteller with the fresh prospects of a new project, he procrastinated. Eventually, he finished something called "Sueno," a play with sparkling moments of poetry and comedy that asks some of the most enduring metaphysical questions to surface around the margins of human thought.

With such lofty aspirations, "Sueno," would really seem interesting if it didn't feel so much like a commercial work for hire that Rivera might've knocked out in an afternoon. The Milwaukee Rep's production takes the uninspired adaptation as far as it will go, but doesn't seem particularly enthusiastic about doing so.

In typically good comic form, Lee Ernst plays Basilio, King of Spain and astrology enthusiast. The stars foretell that his unborn son Segismundo is destined to be a tyrant, which is a bit disconcerting. When the queen dies in childbirth, the newborn Segismundo is exiled to life in prison. Years later, Segismundo (as played by a charismatic Reese Madigan) has grown into adulthood completely ignorant about his lineage. Spending his time reading in solitude, Segismundo's only human contact comes in the form of Clotaldo, (Timothy McCuen Piggee.) a masked advisor to the king who acts as his teacher.

Enough time having passed since the birth of his son, Basillio, presumably having gone over all the astrological fine print on his son's future history, has decided to let him in on the knowledge of his heritage. The sudden jolt of firsthand knowledge of the outside world calls forth all kinds of questions about the illusory nature of reality and destiny. With the stability of Spain resting in Segismundo's reaction to his mistreatment, will he be able to forgive his father and cheat destiny?

Sueno's loftier philosophical themes play out in rather interesting bits of poetic babble, but they lack the polished composition that would befit a story of this magnitude. The potency of the theme is watered down by subplots that are interesting but seem out of place.

Lanise Antoine Shelley is exciting as Rosaura: one who seeks revenge on Astolfo: a sleezy guy (the suave Ted Deasy) who wants to marry Basilio's daughter Estrella (played with captivating charm by Heather Prete,) but all of this is as long-winded and extraneous as this sentence probably makes it seem. The Rep executes all those extraneous plot elements quite well, but that doesn't change the fact that they distract from the play's central themes. In the role of Rosaura's comic servant Clarin, Torrey Hanson is by far the best distraction in the production. He's the clown here-making joking comments throughout the play. Rivera seems to have used this character's completely anachronistic dialogue as a medium through which to directly comment on Mr. Calderon de la Barca's original story.

It's kind of fun to watch a modern playwright respectfully joking about the work of an ancient colleague he's honoring with a modern adaptation. Clarin isn't alone in uttering the occasional comic bit done in modern vernacular. Comical lines mix seamlessly with the poetry in places. Just about every character gets a comedic jab in SOMEWHERE, but the comedy distracts from the drama a bit too much.

While the humor itself is not inherently distracting, the subtle blend of comedic lines with serious, dramatic tones is the major source of the distraction here. Had the lines of comedy been preformed with a subtle but powerful contrast to the rest of the dialogue-with a breakneck rhythm and speed that matched a theater-goers inherent understanding of this type of story-it would've made for a really interesting production. It would've lent a crazy, dangerous edge to the production which would've elevated The Rep's "Sueno" beyond a rather uninspired script.

With seasoned talent like Ernst, Hanson and Deasy accompanied by the fresher elements provided by people like Prete and Shelley, the Rep really missed a chance to outperform a pretty good, if uninspired script.

The Milwaukee Rep's production of "Sueno" runs now through February 19 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex. Tickets range in price from $10-$50 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (414) 224-9490.

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