Information, reviews, and miscellaneous shorts focusing on professional, nonprofit theater—from a Southeast Minnesota perspective.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Man of La Mancha

by Dale Wasserman (book), Joe Darion (lyrics), Mitch Leigh (music). Directed by Hal Cropp
Commonweal Theatre (July 7, 2008)

The Commonweal’s summer offering, Man of La Mancha, matches the company’s creative production and acting with a strong and popular musical comedy. The result is a play that builds on this season’s earlier production of Peer Gynt: fast-paced story telling with a small cast that not only portrays multiple characters, it creates the scenes, manufactures important props, plays the chorus, and even handles the orchestra duties. The play is immensely funny and subtly thought-provoking. The cast, director Hal Cropp, and the production team are to be congratulated on a top-notch production.

The success of Man of La Mancha starts with a tried-and-true musical comedy which has seen constant performances since its 1965 Tony Award winning Broadway premiere. But its pedigree dates back even farther, borrowing the title character and its episodes from the classic seventeenth century Spanish novel, Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote chronicles the adventures of an eccentric who sets out to recapture the honor of a long-gone, romanticized era of knights. The episodic novel’s huge success came from its witty ability to lampoon the conventions of popular legends and romance stories, perhaps in the same way that Monty Python lampooned the King Arthur legend in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When Dale Wasserman selected the episodes to include in his 1959 television drama, he not only had the pick of time-tested story lines from one of the pioneering books in world literature, he had a main character in Don Quixote whose lunacy and idealism has long been ingrained in western culture.

The drama takes place entirely in a prison where Cervantes awaits trial before the Spanish Inquisition. But first, his fellow inmates charge Cervantes with being honest, a bad poet, and an idealist. For these crimes, they threaten to take his meager possessions and destroy his manuscript. Desperate to save the manuscript, Cervantes and his servant enact scenes from the life of Don Quixote as a form of defense. With the aid of a few rough props and costumes that he has brought with him, Cervantes transforms into Don Quixote, and his fellow prisoners are enlisted to play the other characters. Their reluctance to join this charade drains away as they become interested in the story and forget the endless tedium of their life in prison.

In the Commonweal’s production, the musical becomes a sort of “non-musical.” While the play features as many songs as most musicals, and the actors do a fine job of singing these songs, the songs seem to naturally fit the story being told on stage; the songs do not upstage the story. I suspect that this is partly due to the play—in Don Quioxte’s world, it could be natural for someone to break out into song—and partly due to choices made by the Commonweal. First, the play does not use an orchestra (or an orchestral recording), so the transition from dialog to song does not include an orchestral swell and a corresponding amplified singer—the actors are able to enter into a song without breaking character. The actors provide the minimal accompaniment. Rick Nance’s character moves to a partially hidden piano for most songs. Additionally, the actors contribute poly-rhythmic instrumentation using muted hand claps or improvised percussion instruments such as rugged eating utensils or rough stage furniture. (Later, David Hennessey told me that Musical Director Stephen Houtz based the rhythms on flamingo). Kimberly Maas occasionally adds accordion for texture and Eric Bunge tells part of a story on guitar. Even “The Impossible Dream” seems like a natural continuation of the theme, not a show-stopping “number.”

The Commonweal’s eight actors rarely leave stage during the 95-minute single act play, moving to the shadows when they are not directly involved in the action. Having one scene to tell a story of this magnitude places a huge burden on the set, blocking, and lighting. Kit Mayer’s seemingly simple set design evokes an iron-cold underworld of lawlessness and despair that physically and emotionally extends beyond the stage’s perimeter. The transitions from dungeon to country-side adventure are created largely by Jason Underferth’s effective lighting design.

Individual performances—and there are many good ones—are overshadowed by the company in this play. Eric Bunge completely transforms into the elderly Quixote character with the aid of a very simple mustache and goatee. Troy Iverson is fun to watch as Quixote’s squire Sancho, and Stef Dickens is brilliant as Quixote’s Lady Dulcinia, as she moves from acceptance of her tough lot in life through confusion and anger at being thought a lady to finally embracing Quixote’s hope and optimism. Her emotional journey reflects the journey of the entire ensemble. But the play’s success is ultimately carried off by the pacing and energy of this ensemble and their ability to spontaneously create the world where the idealism of the foolish knight, Don Quixote, and his unlikely squire, Sancho Panza, seem possible.

The Man of La Mancha plays in repertory with Harvey through October 25.
Visit the Commonweal for schedules and tickets: Commonweal Theatre

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