Life's a Dream at Ten Thousand Things Theater

No happy ending: Namir Smallwood (left) and Stephen D'Ambrose

No happy ending: Namir Smallwood (left) and Stephen D'Ambrose

The finale of Life's a Dream wraps up the play's action in a neat bow: The 17th-century Polish court has learned valuable lessons about leadership, a man and a woman are able to marry for their love, and a father and daughter are reunited.

Yet it isn't a happy ending in the least, which the players at Ten Thousand Things Theater bring out in their every word, facial expression, and movement. Their characters have grown beyond the simple expectations of the plot into beings with expectations that have twisted and deepened through the play. As each character gets what he once most wanted—betrothal, reunion, or power—confusion and even fear are written in his eyes.

One of those moments is the topper of an absolutely electric 10 minutes of theater—one that transforms Pedro Calderón de la Barca's allegory about free will versus destiny into a deep and human meditation on the choices we make and the overwhelming power of mercy.

In the play, presented through an adaptation by Adrian Mitchell, we follow two main plots. Sigismund is a prince of Poland who, because the "stars" said he would be an awful tyrant, has been imprisoned by his father since birth in an isolated tower, with only his tormentor and teacher, Cotaldo, as a companion. Entering into his world by accident is Rosaura, a young woman (disguised as a man; this is a 17th-century drama after all) who is searching for the man who besmirched her honor.

At the same time, King Basilio has chosen to give his son a single chance to prove the prophecy wrong. Sigismund will be drugged, taken to the court, and installed as the monarch. If he proves to be a tyrant, he will be removed back to his cell and told that all the action was nothing but a dream. At court, Rosaura finds her man, who is an heir to the throne and, for political reasons, must marry Estrella. All the while, jailer Cotaldo fights his indecision—Rosaura is the daughter he abandoned to her non-noble mother years before. His heart wants him to tell the truth, but he knows that could end in his death at the hands of his vengeful daughter.

The tangled situation only gets tighter around the characters when Sigismund, unused to freedom and people, does prove to be a tyrant in his one-day reign, but the news of his existence leads to a rebellion in the land. How will the prince handle his second chance?

There's a lot of plot going on here, yet the adaptation and Michelle Hensley's able direction keep it all clear and direct in a tight two-hour production. The show could easily get bogged down in the philosophical underpinnings that drive the plot, but instead they all lead to the show's stunning finale.

The actors make it all work, and they bring an intensity to their roles that fuels the themes, rather than being mere puppets to the ideas. Namir Smallwood leads this effort as Sigismund. The character carries the central themes in his every move, but Smallwood makes his actions natural throughout. This is a man isolated from the world for his entire life, and his difficulty in dealing with the situation comes out clearly in every hesitation and look of confusion on Smallwood's face.

Rosaura's journey runs parallel to Sigismund's, and Maggie Chestovich brings her quite different character to life. She is on a quest to win the man she loves—or kill him. Her time in the outside world has given her more tools, but the tumult inside is made real both in Chestovich's aggressive body language on her single-minded quest and in the gentler, vulnerable moments when she tries to win back her love.

Confusion is the dish of the day here, and no one embodies that more than Cotaldo, who is jailer to one character and secret father to the other. Wracked by indecision, the character is caught between doing right for his family, his charge, and his kingdom. Stephen D'Ambrose plays a man worn down by obligations to his king and haunted by his actions from decades past. He also brings out the character's honor, especially when he makes decisions that could easily lead to the end of his life.

The rest of the cast perform to the same high level, led by Elise Langer's comic turn as the down-to-earth clown Clarion, whose comments on the mad actions of the court (Really, imprisoning your son for two decades and then turning the kingdom over to him? That has disaster written all over it) offer some levity, and whose fate helps lead our characters on their final journey.

Before the show's opening night, Hensley read some comments from the nontraditional audiences (prisoners, residents of homeless shelters) that are a big part of Ten Thousand Things' mission. One wrote that the performers have "talent to split seas." That talent is on full display throughout Life's a Dream.