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THE DAILY PROGRESS Charlottesville, Va., Sunday, May 20, 2001

If life's a dream, then so is Foolery's latest effort
By Clare Aukofer

Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid that, on awakening, you weren't sure which was real and which was the dream? Well, that's the more obvious premise of "Life's a Dream" ("La Vida es Sueno"), written about 1635 by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, sometimes called "The Spanish Shakespeare."

What is less obvious is that this play is about more than dream vs. reality - it's about life itself and what reality truly is. In a way, essentially existentialist, though was written long before that term was coined and, in the adept hands and bodies of Foolery, far more fun than something you'd think of as existentialist.

Foolery is that crazy, creative theatrical troupe that's been working together and staging fascinating theatrical works, mostly in the Live Arts Space, for several years.

The troupe describes itself as "a local company of theater artists who combine ancient techniques of clown and dance with modern research into the relationship between playmakers and playgoers."

Foolery is always creative and has yet to publicly perform an uninteresting work. Previous projects have been mostly original works with few, if any, lines. In this case, the company has picked a perfect "regular" play for its special, ever-evolving brand of theater.

It's interesting that the playwright chose this subject. Born in 1600, de la Barca is claimed by the Roman Catholic church as one of its stars of literature. He was poet as well as playwright, educated by Jesuits. He took holy orders himself when he was, as one Catholic source puts it, "past his prime" in 1651 and died 30 years later, in 1681.

The play's been called an "ever-pertinent play about the power of free will" and that is no doubt how the church viewed it. Certainly, that's what it looks like on one level.

In fact, it's possible to wonder whether Calderon chose the play's ending because it would be approved of by the church, while keeping the more dangerous questions about existence cleverly submerged in the body of the play. In it, the aging Polish king Basilio decides that it's time to choose his successor, a job sought after by both Duke Astolfo and his cousin, the lovely Estrella. What they don't know is that there is a true prince - a son of the king, who was imprisoned and kept secret because the stars and omens showed that he would be a cruel king, a bad ruler. Since birth, Prince Sigismund has been kept in near-solitary confinement, with only a tutor for company.

Basilio arranges to have Sigismund drugged and brought to the castle, where he will become, literally, king for a day. From his actions, his father wishes to determine whether or not the true prince can become a true king, in short, to see if Sigismund can shake the prophesies and become a wise ruler. If the prince fails, he will be told that his reign was all a dream.

It isn't that simple. And that may well be why Foolery has done such a marvelous job with it, exploring this wonderful script on many levels.

The production is like a hologram. If you look at it from one angle, in one light, it seems to say one thing. Tilt a bit and it says something else. Move it still more and the messages blend, becoming something else entirely. Nothing is clear-cut, and that's one of the reasons it's fascinating.

Foolery's trademark red nose is appropriately present, as is the troupe's ever-effective smooth, disciplined movement. Performers almost literally glide in and out of view, and though entrances and other movements look effortless, every movement has been planned and adds to the script. If Foolery has succeeded in getting across one message in its time, it is that theater is far more than lines, far more than a play.

Here, the troupe takes an already-written play and adds subtext with movement, giving the script dimensions that may have never been seen by the l7th-century Catholic church.

Foolery performs as a troupe, almost as a single creative entity so the star of this show is Foolery itself. All of the individual performances have merit in their own rights but, also appropriately, no one stands apart from any of the others. All of the performers, from Foolery's "regulars" to some newcomers added to the company for this production, are superb.

Director Thadd McQuade uses people as props as well as performers. This kind of thing is no surprise from Foolery, but folks who haven't yet seen the troupe are in for some pleasant creative surprises. For instance, two young women become fetters and chains and other props.

With this show, Foolery inaugurates its new home in the former Papercraft Printing building on Old Preston Avenue, at the west end of the Downtown Mall.

The space is small - there's only room for 25 people - but it is perfect both for the troupe and this play. Room for large audiences will probably be needed - soon.

The old stone wall within the building is beautiful in itself (and of course, gets climbed at one point in the production), and designer and troupe member Maggie Moore has used simple tables and curtains for a very versatile set.

The troupe has also created an interesting new payment arrangement - pay what you think it's worth, after the show.

For this production, at least that should amount to more than the $10 advance ticket price offered for more conventional playgoers.

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