- Play by Dale Wasserman
- Music by Mitch Leigh . Lyrics by: Joe Darien
- Directed by Colin Hovde
- Musical Direction by Shawn Burke-Storer
- Choreographed by Stefan Sittig
- Produced by Washington Savoyards
- Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
You don’t often get the chance to see a small local company put on a Broadway blockbuster that started life as a black-and-white TV show, inspired by a 16th-century novel whose cultural legacy still speaks to us in the 21st. But for the next few days, you can see it on H Street.
When”Man of La Mancha” began as an unpretentious teleplay written by Dale Wasserman for CBS’s Dupont Show of the Month in 1959, the international, almost preternatural success it was to achieve six years later as a multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway musical would have been seen – to risk stating the obvious – as an impossible dream. Since then the show has been revived four times on Broadway, and has either toured or been restaged in probably every major city with a legitimate theater. With it, for better or for worse, the character of Don Quixote has become a cultural icon for millions who may never open the pages of, in Wasserman’s words, Cervantes’ “amazing compendium of the good, the bad, and the brilliant.”
The Washington Savoyards brought the show, under the direction of Colin Hovde, to DC’s Atlas Performing Arts Center this month for a two-week, three-day run. While the production will never challenge its celebrated forebears, it offers DC theater-goers a chance to see what all the fuss was about, and to appreciate, evaluate or revisit the skills of local talent.
At the show I saw, the cast warmed up slowly. For the first half hour after an impressive, tableau-like opening, I was almost ready to write it off: The players moved awkwardly, the singing was fair-to-middling, few actors seemed invested in their characters. But by the time it ended, I was almost ready to join the audience (which filled only a third of the theater) in a standing ovation.
There is no curtain: upon entering the theater you are greeted by the Overture, taking your seat in time to the rhythmic click-clack of the castanets. You look up to see a town square occupied by fifteen to twenty people quietly sitting, lying, chatting, flirting, sleeping, strumming, thinking. The tableau is absorbing, evocative of a Renaissance painting, in effect situating us without the need for narrative. We then move to the prison, where Cervantes is being held in a cell with cutthroats and thieves, pending trial before the Inquisition for offenses against the Church. As he unpacks his meager belongings, his cell mates (already ill-disposed towards someone who, as both tax collector and poet, may seem to threaten both their livelihood and their manhood) seize the manuscript of his unfinished novel, “Don Quixote.” Desperate to save it from destruction, Cervantes offers to it act out for them with his faithful but somewhat doubtful manservant. Their reluctant audience will soon take on supporting roles, as their interest and curiosity grows.
The sets (Elizabeth McFadden) and costumes (Eleanor Dicks) are on the whole fairly plain, as befits the story, and serve the production well. Three notable scenes are exceptional not for their intricacy, but for their frightening simplicity and the skillful, verging on inspired, lighting that attends them (Andrew R. Cissna). In the first, two electrifyingly red-robed, red-hooded Inquisitors tower at the top of the stairs, illuminated by hellish flames. They will later be visually counterpointed by their fictional counterpart, the Enchanter. Dressed from head to toe in deathly black and disguised as the Knight of the Mirrors, the evil Enchanter seemingly splits into several armed reflections appearing in a blinding semicircle around the rear perimeter of the stage. Quixote strikes out at the mirror images with his sword, but he is is no match for them, and ends in ignominious defeat. (Interestingly, Orson Welles, who was obsessed with the Cervantes novel and spent years trying to make a film of it, has the protagonist in the climactic scene of his Lady from Shanghai fire wildly into a similar circuit of funhouse-mirror images, hoping to hit his two murderous antagonists.
The third is Quixote’s famous challenge to the windmills, which he thinks to be giants. The scene is drawn in sweeping arcs: shadows and light dart and loom, giving the perilously illusive impression of a game. Knowing the fate that may await Cervantes, we see them in a forebodingly different light when Quixote loses the battle. (I won’t go into the plot here, which most people are at least familiar with. Suffice it to say that Cervantes’ story tells of the squire Don Quixote, who sets out with his manservant Sancho Panza to restore the glorious reign of chivalry, to protect and avenge the innocent, to fight evil, and to make the world a better place. His insistence on calling the whore Aldonza an angelic beauty named “Dulcinea” angers and offends her – “Why can’t you see me for who I really am?” – and will culminate in the most moving scene in the play.)
Back at the prison, the sound of the approaching guards is heard. “They’re coming for you, Don Quixote,” the prisoners taunt him. “Where are your dreams now?” But it is not the Don’s turn yet: The guards pull from under the floorboards a trembling, whip-scarred, terrified young man (Daniel Rakowski) and drag him up the long staircase. The other prisoners turn on Cervantes: “Where are your dreams now? This is real life! This is happening to you.” Cervantes replies that he knows what is real, has known want, has seen human pain. “When life itself is lunatic,” he asks, in a question that resonates four decades and four centuries later, “who knows where madness lies?”
As Cervantes/Don Quixote, Scott Sedar at first seemed less than fully invested in the role. It was only after singing the song in which he declaims and defends his principles with eloquence and passion, that he became both a credible Cervantes and a believable Quixote.
Julie K. Wolf’s Aldonza began tentatively, only hinting at the tremendous self-possession and physical command of the role (which requires not a small amount of athletic ability) she would later display. Credit for these sequences, including one in which Aldonza, with almost balletic grace, ministers to Quixote’s and Sancho’s wounds, and another in which she is brutally assaulted by the Muleteers, also goes to choreographer and fight director Stefan Sittig.
As Sancho Panza, Diego Prieto was right on the money: simple and disingenuous, he received the first round of sustained, enthusiastic applause with his straight-faced, irresistibly hilarious rendition of his improbable testament to Quixote, “I Really Like Him.” As the Governor / Innkeeper, Christopher Poverman was natural and pleasant voiced, seeming at ease in the role. The most vocally impressive was John Day in the small role of the Padre, whose closing “Psalm” was exquisitely rendered. (It was no surprise to read in the playbill that Day’s credits include leading roles with opera companies across the country.)
While you may not buy part-and-parcel into the play’s romanticism, as we may have been more willing to do in the sixties, when it ends you may find yourself buying into its innocence. As Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich some thirty years ago: “… these dated old virtues … still seem to speak to us when, by all logic, they’re so hopelessly irrelevant. That’s why I’ve been obsessed so long with Don Quixote.”
Those sentiments seem even truer today, when unwavering faith, hope, and devotion may strike us as not only dated and irrelevant, but dangerously naive. All the more reason to follow the lead of the Don, who tells us that “Sanity may be madness, but the maddest of all is to see life as it is, and not as it should be.”
- Running Time: 1:45
- When: Thru April 27, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30, Saturday – Friday at 8.
- Where: Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, N.E. Washington, DC
- Tickets: $45 (children and seniors: $40; child free with adult).
- Call: 202-399-7993, or purchase tickets online.
- Info: Visit the website.
Leslie Weisman is an avid theatre-goer whose other cultural passions are film and music.
A subscriber to a half-dozen DC theatres for the last several years, Leslie also writes for the Washington DC Film Society and sings with the Washington Saengerbund, where she serves as newsletter editor and publicity coordinator.