Posted by: strugglesome | September 27, 2011

Back In The Saddle: People’s Light and Theatre Company presents The Return of Don Quixote

If Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered to be the first comedy (and it is, indeed, hilarious) then Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has to be at least the first buddy-comedy. Think about it, two guys, the open road, all the ladies they can charm, and a medieval code of chivalry. All the ingredients you need for a classic no-holds-barred good time! In 1000 pages! Give or take. Because though it is a classic, Don Quixote is a long haul, and not for the faint of heart. Windmills, knights, serving wenches turned damsels in distress, illusions haunt the clouded mind of the title character, sweeping side-kick turned squire Sancho Panza along with him. But why does Panza, a practical man, a pig farmer, even, surely he isn’t an ideal candidate for madness? The answer is simple, Panza, like the rest of us, wants to believe in a better world. He wants to believe in moral absolutes and codes on honor, in the world the man of La Mancha sees before him every day. Infected by literature, a kindly old gentleman farmer decides to take up arms against an unjust world and ride out, into the Spanish Golden age, that brief glorious heyday between forcing all non-Christians to leave Spain, and realizing they took all the good stuff with them.

Cervantes, a battered and worn ex-solider himself, published Don Quixote in two parts. The first, and most widely referenced, hit the shelves in 1605, while the second wasn’t released until 1615. While the first part is farce, the second part is the more serious satire, and it seems to be from this second part that Kira Obolensky had drawn for her new telling of this old story, The Return of Don Quixote, now playing at People’s Light and Theater Company. In the second part of the novel the world has learned of the wild antics of Don Quixote (real name Alonzo Quixano, played by Graham Smith) and, encountering a Duke and a Duchess, Quixote and his squire are hoaxed, forced to go through a series of fake trials and quests to prove Quixote’s devotion to Dulcinea (i.e. Aldonza, played by Melanye Finister). The humiliation he experiences drills the dreams out of our knight of the woeful continence, and he succumbs, finally, tragically, to sanity. Obolensky’s text borrows generously from its source material, twisting a few details to carve out a more dramatic narrative, but generally staying within the boundaries of Cervantes’ text. Smith’s subdued and damaged Don Quixote is visited in the midst of his domestic-lack-of-bliss by his old friend, Sancho Panza (Chris Faith). Panza comes with a book, an account of their adventures together, and it’s mocking tone re-ignites Quixote’s knightly fervor. Despite the protests of his sweet but dim niece Innocenta (Nalini Sharma), her smirking fiancée Samson (Luigi Sotille) and his stern housekeeper (Alda Cortese) Don Quixote once more dons his dented armour and mounts his faithful stead (here a wooden nursery toy) to battle dragons. What he finds instead is a mocking world and lost hopes. And the battle he really has to fight, is, of course, with himself, whether to go on believing or let the impossible dream die, and just go home.

It is a continually fascinating story, in and of itself. But while The Return of Don Quixote has moments of beauty and clarity, it is hampered by a script that is weighed down by exposition and dead air. The most interesting moment of the play happens at the start of the second act, when Quixote, having betrayed Faith’s Panza, (who works extremely hard with his many lines and little to say), finds himself in a mental institution with three Quixote impersonators (hilariously executed by Sotille along with Stephan Novelli and Peter DeLaurier). It’s not only the most genuinely funny (and totally inappropriate for children) scene of the show, but it’s also the truest, and the darkest. Quixote, as he finds himself losing his faith in a better world, is confronted with three desperate men who have given up their everyday lives to seek solace in the madness of justice. It’s painful, it’s clever, it’s dark, and it’s really the whole point of re-examining the original novel, to highlight the cracks and shadows, the way the world destroys a man who only believes in goodness, the way having ideals is interpreted as lunacy. Compared to how well crafted this scene is, most of the rest of the play feels messy, heavy-handed, and often repetitive. Moreover, each of the characters in this work seem like they are living in different plays. Smith is in King Lear, raging and weeping touchingly with the pain and shame of illusions crushed and time passing. Faith is in an elaborate in information-heavy french farce, Sotille is in a painfully funny  Adult Swim cartoon which I really need to start TIVOing, and Sharma is in a children’s show. Everyone else? Is just along for the ride.

Staged in People’s Light and Theater Company’s mammoth main stage, the playing space neatly expands and contracts with the movements of large leather-like screens, stitched together to say “rustic Spain” (set design by James Pyne). And of course, there is a windmill, a neat fusion of set and lighting (design by Gregory Miller), and for the most part the warm tones of the Iberian color palette score the play with a playful fairy-tale quality that matches director Ken Marini’s intentions, if not the subject matter. Strummy guitars and mandolins usher the audience from scene to scene (a nicely Castillian sound palette created by Rob Kaplowitz) while Marla Jurglanis’ costumes evoke the period without being slavishly tied to it. All in all the design is rich and sumptuous and highlights the struggle within the text. Part of this piece wants to be a sentimental and inspiring tale about dreams and seeing the hidden beauty in the world, and part of it wants to be a troubling examination of time, old age, idealism trampled in the face of reality, and madness. Until this play can decide what exactly it’s about, it’s bound to leave the audience behind.

Perhaps this is not the most stirring or coherent of Don Quixote’s adventures, but we can’t help but relate to the essence of the story on some level. As another adaptation of this so-iconic story remarks. “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams – -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all – -to see life as it is and not as it should be.” (Man of La Mancha, written by Dale Wasserman). People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of The Return of Don Quixote is playing from now until the 16th of October. Tickets are available here.

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