If you look past the leggings and animal-skin jerkins, the bodices and full, flowing gowns, people in 17th-century Spain were not all that different from those walking the halls of BMCC today.
Professor Diane Dowling directed a student production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play, Life Is A Dream, and while she modernized its florid, 17th-century language, the story needs no updating, she says, to appeal to a contemporary audience.
The essence of play’s message, says Dowling, is that “no matter what the circumstances in our lives—we may feel trapped, we may feel imprisoned—if we find a unique perspective, which is the ‘dream’ that the main character finds, we can rise above our circumstances and become who we really want to be.”
Or to look at it another way, theatre major Wendy Torres, who plays Rosaura, the female lead says, “What you can actually relate to, is having to protect your honor from somebody.”
Rosaura, she explains, has been “seriously dishonored by the character Astolfo, so she’s trying to get her honor back.”
Everyone plays a role
Students took an active role in every aspect of the production—from the acting, to the costume, set, lighting and sound design, to the technical work.
Dowling even involved them in the process of adapting the play’s language.
“I worked with a translation that was very close to the original, by Stanley Appelbaum,” she says, “and then I started to read it with students, and find ways to make it more lively, and pull away the things that weren’t really necessary in terms of language.”
The core situations of the play “are hilarious and sad, and wonderfully dramatic, and we just kept working on it,” she says.
While modernizing its language helped students engage with the production, keeping the setting historically correct, “posed a problem because it’s very expensive to do things in period,” says Dowling.
She credits several faculty members for the play’s convincing 17th-century look, sound and feel.
These include set and lighting designer, Professor Elizabeth Chaney; costume designer, Professor Mia Bienavich, and sound designer, Adjunct Professor Chris Peifer, who “put together a lot of music that I selected from the Spanish Golden Age,” Dowling says.
Theatre major Chris Clarke worked with Professor Bienavich through a costume practicum, helping with everything from creating patterns, to altering costumes to fit the cast.
“We went to the costume collection at the Theater Development Fund in Astoria, which is basically a repository of about 75,000 costumes in a big huge warehouse,” says Clark, “and we got to go through and pick about 20 different outfits to bring back here that we thought were appropriate.”
He also made costumes from materials found on eBay, putting them together in BMCC’s costume shop, which offers two industrial sewing machines.
“My personal favorite costume that I got to work on was Segismundo’s animal skin jerkin, which was totally made from scratch,” he says.
Costumes are important, he says, “because they really tell you a lot about the characters. They tell you what their class is, what the time period is, how serious or funny the play is, if it’s reality based or surreal.”
Through the contacts he’s made working on Life’s a Dream, “I have an interview next week for an off-Broadway show,” Clarke says. “This has really helped me, pushed me out into the real world already.”
Getting in character
Theatre major David Dakota Sanchez, who plays Segismundo, the exiled prince, says, “I wanted to play this role because it kind of allows me to explore a different side of myself, which is being very wild, and outgoing and kind of vicious.”
On the other hand, says Sanchez, “I can relate to the character because in a way he’s lost, and he’s not sure exactly what’s happening around him. I think we all feel that at some point in our lives we’re kind of lacking direction and trying to figure out things for the first time; whether it’s a new job, a new school or whatever it is.”
The challenge for Wendy Torres, who plays Rosaura, is that her character, in some scenes, passes as a man. This involved research.
“I had to really look at a lot of people, like guys in the play, how they would walk when they’re doing their scenes; people on the train, or the bus,” she says, adding that, “I love the dressing up. Actually the costumes help me get into character.”
It’s all about you, the audience
“I have been the theatre coordinator for some time,” says Dowling. “I teach acting, and I teach a course called ‘Page to Stage’, which is what this production is connected to, where we start from script and build it up to a full production.”
Life Is a Dream attracted her “because I love doing Shakespeare—and the Spanish Golden Age, which is what is contemporary with Shakespeare, was a wonderful, vibrant kind of theater, and it’s neglected now,” she says.
A contemporary of Calderón, the painter Diego Velázquez was born just a year earlier, in 1599.
“They actually lived and worked in the palace of Philip the Fourth at the same time,” says Dowling, who was inspired by Velázquez’s painting, Las Meninas, which shows a mirror reflecting the king and queen.
“I took an idea from that for this production and that’s why you see a big mirror in the back of the stage,” she says. “Even though it’s very covered over, that’s my way of trying to draw the audience into feeling that it’s really about you… it’s about all of us, about being drawn in and seeing yourself in a situation here. Now, you won’t actually be able to see yourself reflected, but metaphorically, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
To see the play in its entirety, click here.
LIFE'S A DREAM, CAST: Wendy Torres, Juadon Sabb, David Dakota Sanchez, Kevin Kash, Rasheem S. Luchie, Edwin Burgos, Corey Kempster, Antionette Stallings, Daniel Szymanowicz, Evaristo Hernandez, Diana Florencio, Amanda Calderón, Iliana Paris, Amelia Perez, Katy Wright, Juriel Gomez, Alex Guzman, Djordje Janicijevic, Victor Clotter, Mario Brown, Jarrid Jones, David Millwood, Robeyda Gomez, Edie Britton, Chris Riva, Marie Riche, Kezia Brown, Tamadra Williams, Jocelyn Magana, Kimberly Flores, Suquaia Grant, Ashanti Easterling. FACULTY CREATIVE TEAM: Mia Bienovich, Elizabeth Chaney, Diane Dowling, Rolando Jorif, Mitchell Ost, Christopher Peifer, Donghyuk Chang, Anthony Crouchelli. STUDENT CREATIVE TEAM: Amanda Beckett, Britney Martinez, Nelson Patino, Ryan Viramontes. Juadon Sabb, Kevin Kash, Jarrid Jones.CREW: Fabian Arocho, Amanda Beckett, Danni Brown, Mario Brown, Edwin Burgos, Amanda Calderón, Wedde-Lynn Doe, Marvin Duarte, Tamara Francis, Alexandro Guzman, Alexandria Haynes, Djordje Janicijevic, Han Young (Dimo) Kang, Hyun Jun (Nora) Kim, Tristan Kobryn, Rasheem Luchie, Stephen Macari, Carmelo Martinez-Vazquez, Patrick J. Reilly, Melissa Rosado, Edward Smith, Amanda Calderón, Chris Clark, Jade Cortez, Alex Guzman, David Millwood, Tia Mohammed, Iliana Paris, Erica Sims, Phoebe Tang, Chantae Walker, Dakota Brodie, Mario Brown, Edwin Burgos, Alex Guzman, Mia Guzman, Jarrid Jones, Justin Simonson, Daniel Szymanowicz, Jessica Thompson, Mason Williams.