Life to Sueño
José Rivera on returning to Off-Broadway, adapting from the Golden Age, and learning from a great writer.
After a three-year absence from Off-Broadway, playwright José Rivera is returning with Manhattan Class Company's production of Sueño, an adaptation of Pedro Calderon's Spanish Golden Age drama, Life is A Dream. Rivera, who is known for his dream-like magic-realism plays--including Marisol, which won a 1993 Obie winner for Outstanding Play, and Cloud Tectonics, which had a critically acclaimed run at Playwrights Horizons--took on the task of adapting one of Spain's most revered dramas with a certain amount of trepidation.
Sueño is what has emerged three-and-a-half years after Hartford Stage approached Rivera about tackling Calderon's classic drama about fathers, sons, predestination, and the nature of reality. Rivera agreed to the commission without actually having read the play. He was particularly busy at the time, and asked his wife to read it for him. She gave it the thumbs up. When Rivera sat down with Life is a Dream for the first time, however, "It seemed impossible," he says. "I didn't like the play at all." He seriously considered changing his mind.
But Rivera persevered and went on to read six different translations of Life is a Dream in addition to the original Spanish version. Then he did his own literal translation of the play. Somewhere in the midst of all this work, he gradually became intrigued by the world Calderon had created. He was particularly fascinated with the character Sigismundo, a prince banished to a remote prison by his father, the king, who believes it is Sigismundo's destiny to become a tyrant. Rivera first turned his attention to the basic psychology of the characters. What happens when you are isolated at birth? What do you think about? What kind of guilt must you have as a father for doing this to your son?
While exploring these questions, Rivera also began to investigate the time of Calderon. He decided to set the play in the Spanish court of 1635, the year the play was written. (The original takes place in Poland.) He has peppered the play with historical references to the time, including mentions of the conquest of the New World and Spain's war with France. Rivera has kept Calderon's plot intact and uses many of his original poetic metaphors. Audiences beware: there are several intentional anachronisms in Sueño.
"Writing an adaptation is not as desperate as writing a new play," Rivera says. "You're not starting at ground zero." He credits Calderon with teaching him a great deal about dramatic structure, and also admires his ability to "write in a condensed poetic language." He found that when he sat down to write a new play after adapting Life, he chose his words much more carefully. Rivera summed up his tumultuous tenure with Calderon with the words of literary agent Morgan Jenness: "Writing an adaptation is like having an apprenticeship with a great writer."
At the helm of Rivera's apprenticeship is the Obie award-winning director Lisa Peterson (Tongue of a Bird, Slavs!, The Model Apartment). The two first met when Peterson directed a reading of Sueño at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and continued their partnership when she went on to direct a production of the play at Hartford Stage in 1998. Rivera is a great admirer of Peterson, noting, "Lisa has a really unique form of creativity for a director. She is equally conversant with playwrights, designers, and actors." The New York production will be slightly different from the Hartford premiere. The intimacy of MCC has forced Peterson to remove some of the stage fighting from the play and replace it with flamenco dancing. Rivera seems pleased with the results, and is full of praise for the cast.
He is not, however, without a certain fear of New York critics. Currently a resident of Los Angeles and a longtime regional theater veteran, Rivera says, "There is something a little bit different about doing a play in New York. The scrutiny is more intense, there is more hysteria when it comes to reviews--it can sometimes cloud the nature of the work." He feels that the cast of Sueño, however, is remarkably relaxed, and has benefited greatly from already having performed the play.