“The greatest good is fleeting for all life is a dream, and dreams are but dreams.”
So asserted Spanish writer Pedro Calderón de la Barca in his 1635 play Life’s a Dream. The political allegory centres on Segismundo, a Polish prince placed in isolation at birth when a prophecy reveals he will kill his father, the King, and disgrace Poland. Now, the questions of free will and destiny raised by Calderón 380 years ago are being dramatised once again, this time by Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company in their new piece Undefined Fraction, currently playing as part of La MaMa’s Puppet Series. Conceived by Denise Greber and Federico Restrepo, this wordless adaptation of Calderón’s play is dreamlike in itself, an imagery-laden rumination that ultimately doesn’t quite add up.
In the absence of words, the storytelling here is accomplished largely through puppetry and dance. Federico Restrepo’s full-bodied puppets are both nimbly lifelike and artfully otherworldly, while smaller puppets are constructed out of thick wire, their sculpted tangles allowing them to be shockingly emotive. The choreography, also by Restrepo, is specifically tailored to each individual character, blending classical ballet and contemporary technique with more gestural and pedestrian movements. The use of dance works particularly well with the piece’s women (the spritely warmth of Hope Kroog’s ballet performances as The Queen and Princess are a highlight), but at other points feels stilted, particularly in the spasmodic spurts of movement performed by Restrepo as the King. An excellently stylised and atmospheric musical score by Tareke Ortiz backs the wordless storytelling, creating an overarching tone that marries the piece’s different elements.
At certain moments, these aesthetic techniques are powerful tools, communicating in a more visceral way than text. The young Segismundo is a wiry puppet whose first moments of isolation are performed within a tabletop cage. The design and puppeteering charge this understated scene; Segismundo’s careful but floppy movements suggest the innocence of a child just finding its feet, and the puppet’s small scale against the darkness of the large stage is a striking portrait of isolation and loneliness. Later, when Segismundo (in human form, performed by the talented Chris Rehmann) is given a chance to leave prison and demonstrate his humanity, he does so by imitating the Princess’ gentle balletic movements, contorting his heavy, unrefined stature into a clumsy first position. Though brief, this moment is emblematic of dance’s strength as a storytelling tool, defining characters through choreography and creating relationships through shared movements.
Unfortunately, these standout moments are the sole guiding lights of a storyline shrouded in confusion. In the programme, Greber and Restrepo note that they took Life’s a Dream and “Cut almost all the text, deleted characters, combined characters and even made up a few characters.” The three-act play has also been condensed here into a tight 70-minute form, and this heavy editing and omission of any text explaining the specific changes results in a confusingly vague narrative. Though clearly meant to be more abstract than the original text, the piece still feels bound to an intricate plot, and with little context to understand the motivations of the characters (or, in some cases, who the characters even are), it’s hard to appreciate the production beyond its aesthetic pleasures. Those who know the original play or read its synopsis will recognise transient moments of narrative clarity. Those who go in cold will be almost completely lost.
Further muddying the already puzzling narrative is the production’s insistence on boldly announcing its universality. The only text in the piece is spoken by an omniscient disembodied female voice (performed by Greber), who begins the production by announcing such themes as destiny, tragedy, and fate, imposing them onto the action about to unfold. Visual symbolism abounds, ranging from a tricycle-like “Perpetuity Machine” that pedals across the stage during transitional moments to the giant God-like hand of fate that rests above the musicians in the corner of the stage. The imposing shadow cast over the stage by the sculpted hand is the piece’s most arresting image, and an opening sequence on the determining forces of the stars uses taught lighted cords to form striking constellations.
Undefined Fraction’s issues can be seemingly explained by its dreamlike structure, taking Calderón’s titular mantra to heart in its evocative imagery and narrative abstraction. But the disparate elements of dreams always somehow make sense in the moment, and Undefined Fraction instead feels reminiscent of a memorable dream that’s long since ended. Some beautifully vivid images remain, but the larger meaning gets tacked on and the narrative, though once clear, now feels muddled into something frustratingly undefined.