Basilio (Andrew Vaught), the King of Spain, doesn't give his son much of a chance. Before Segismundo (Cameron-Mitchell Ware) is born, astrologers forecast he will bring harm to the kingdom. When the queen dies in childbirth, Basilio declares the infant a murderer and has him imprisoned in Sueno, currently getting a dynamic production by Cripple Creek Theatre at the First Unitarian Universalist Church.
There's an air of Greek tragedy in 17th-century Spanish playwright Calderon de la Barca's play Life Is a Dream. Basilio is frightened by his fortunetellers and tries to avert what he sees as fate by removing his son from the kingdom. In Sueño, playwright Jose Rivera's contemporary adaptation, Segismundo's fate is less an issue of the stars than a consequence of the cruelty inflicted upon him. It's a brilliant take on the story, as the future of the kingdom hangs in the balance.
The production is presented in the round, and the action, swordfighting and all, happens within reach of every seat. Nicole Boyd-Buckels' choreography and Kevin Murphy's stage-fighting direction are sharp. The set is bare, and there are few props. Costumes also are spare, except for a few extravagant royal coats and robes.
Much of the drama takes place once Segismundo reaches adulthood. Clotaldo (Pamela Roberts), an attendant to the king, visits Segismundo and tries to counsel him, though the boy is unaware of his parentage and that he is an heir to the throne. Meanwhile, Basilio decides to test if the astrologers were right and has Segismundo released. If the young man is as frightening as predicted, Basilio will throw him back in jail and tell him that everything he experienced on the outside was just a dream.
Meanwhile, a pair of royals, Astolfo (Rahim Glaspy) and Estrella (Jessica Lozano), eye the open path to the throne. They are hilariously vain, petty and solicitous, and various royals think nothing of their privilege and how their actions harm others.
Rosaura (Devyn Tyler) and her assistant Clarin (Ian Hoch) arrive in the kingdom from Poland. As outsiders, they come under instant suspicion. Hoch is funny as the powerless and hapless Clarin, whose vulnerability is played for comedy. The play's dialogue is full of contemporary street slang, often candid and sometimes crass.
There are many excellent performances, including Vaught as the imperious and distraught king, whose wisdom has failed him. Roberts is unflappable as Clotaldo, who as a liaison to Segismundo is at pains not to betray the king's unfairness. Tyler is fiery as Rosaura, who also is fighting for recognition.
Cameron-Mitchell Ware delivers a powerful performance as Segismundo, who smolders under his perpetual punishment and is unaware of the cause. When the young man is released and suddenly given power, he explodes with energy. But can Segismundo be expected to be kind or just?
The drama is intense and the humor is equally sharp. In 90 minutes without an intermission, not a word or movement is wasted under Emilie Whelan's direction. In its final production, Cripple Creek Theatre has again presented an enthralling show that deftly engages social issues. Tickets $25. At 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday, June 8-10. First Unitarian Universalist Church, 2093 Jefferson Ave.; www.cripplecreektheatre.org.