Strong Performances Shine in Dreamlandia

Some shows are meant for audiences to sit back and enjoy. The story is packaged neatly and delivered to the listener without making them do much work. This is not to say there is anything wrong with that; it has its place. Shows like Dreamlandia, however, require more from the viewer. It can be easy to lose the story if you’re not paying attention, and even if you are, you end up left with more questions than answers. It also requires a lot from its performers. This show would not work if its cast was not fully committed. Fortunately, Brown’s production features a cast of undergraduates (and one grad student) who are all up for the task.

Octavio Solis’ Dreamlandia examines the political, cultural and personal identities of people living on the border of Mexico and America. It’s an adaptation of the 1636 Spanish play Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Where the source play centers on the prince of Poland, Dreamlandia focuses on the prince of a drug empire in El Paso, Lazaro (Sebastian Otero Oliveras). His father, the ruthless Celestino (Marlon Jimenez Oviedo), who is so hellbent on keeping his Mexican heritage a secret, he lets his wife (Yurema Perez-Hinojosa) die in childbirth rather than take her to the hospital, keeps him in chains on an island in the Rio Grande, with only TV Guides and fashion magazines to inform his culture, leaving him without morals, without a country and half-savage. He is briefly freed to take his place as Celestino’s heir, only to commit an act of betrayal and be chained again and told that it was all a dream. Lazaro is a dynamic character whose emotions vacillate wildly — he’s an in-between character: in between countries, in between savage and civilized, in between rage and sensitivity — which makes this a demanding role, and Oliveras nails it. Meanwhile, the fearless Blanca (Ana Rosa Marx) and her brain-damaged yet funny and psychic brother, Pepin (Jorge Sanchez Garcia), try to find and get revenge against their unknown father — Frank (Ben Hayslett), Celestino’s blade-happy right-hand man — on behalf of her deceased mother, Dolores (Paola Jimenez).

There is a complicated web of issues surrounding the border, and Solis ambitiously attempts to touch upon them all with varying levels of success. While drug-smuggling is at the center of the story and therefore gets a fair amount of stage time, the serial murders of the maquiladora workers is only briefly touched upon. In trying to tie everything in, topics that would probably require their own play to get their due attention end up getting shortchanged. Granted, none of these issues exist in a vacuum, and they all intersect, but to only give a halfhearted nod to something that clearly deserves more than that makes it seem forced. The language itself is beautifully poetic, harkening back to the source material, and the characters are vibrant and memorable.

Shows like this are essential right now. Telling stories like this that bring issues we tend to talk about in the abstract make them tangible and show that where we view things in black and white, there is grey area — in a world of either/or, both and neither are hard to comprehend, but the characters of Lazaro, who literally exists between America and Mexico, and Blanca, whose identity as half-American and half-Mexican leads her to be unsure of where she belongs. Brown is lucky to have diverse enough talent to explore such plays and tell such stories.

Dreamlandia runs through Oct. 8 at the Leeds Theatre. For tickets, visit brown.edu/theatre.

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