What object best represents Man of La Mancha, the newly opened musical at Shakespeare Theater Company? Maybe a stylish and well-fitting pair of jeans with rivets on the seams. Perhaps a classic Chrysler LeBaron with shiny wheel spokes and smooth pseudo-wood panel on the side. Or Man of La Mancha could be a fine bottle of whiskey sealed with bright red wax.
What do all of these things have to do with STC’s newest feature? They’re all skeuomorphs, which is a fancy word for something that is something onew made to look like something old. That’s a perfect description of Man of La Mancha, set in a towering steel cage in a prison of the Spanish Inquisition.
The production design, directing, and acting in this crowd-pleasing musical all use gorgeous stage magic to transform the slickness and sharpness of a “21st century lens” (as STC’s mission statement says) into a seemingly rough hewn and lived in classic that gives the feeling of being transported back to the time of Miguel de Cervantes, original author of Don Quixote and flashpoint lead character in this musical tragicomedy.
Anthony Warlow plays the eponymous Man of La Mancha, both as Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote, and Warlow perfects with consummate professionalism director Alan Paul’s vision of a ready made performance in a 17th century Spanish prison. Locked up for foreclosing on a church, Warlow’s Cervantes is put on a pre-Inquisition trial by his new fellow prisoners, who accuse him of being an idealist and bad poet. In his defense, Cervantes takes on the character of his most famous character and directs the prisoners in a makeshift production of his work, the manuscript of which the other prisoners threaten to burn. In his transformation of Cervantes into Quixote and prison into playhouse, Warlow exemplifies the skeuomorph in one beautiful moment, making this crisply executed and intricate production feel like the best of what Peter Brook called “the Rough Theater.”
Warlow’s perfect moment comes only a few minutes into the production, just after he convinces the other prisoners to let him put on his Don Quixote. He pulls an actor’s makeup kit from his traveling trunk, and as he sets the stage for his masterwork, Warlow transforms himself with paste and postiche into the aged squire/knight errant. His transformation is magical, but its true magic lies in its openness. I watched Warlow put on his greasepaint and false beard, but unlike a sleight of hand magician, knowing the trick makes it no less impressive. His onstage change, while one of the highlights of the evening, was merely exemplary of strong transformative choices from actors and design team that fit perfectly with Alan Paul’s vision.
Nehal Joshi, playing Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza, is a particular standout in terms of strong choices. Joshi’s interpretation, more manic and genuine than traditional approaches to the character, makes him seem like a commedia master. He uses bold physicality to elicit laughs while driving home a powerful loyalty to his master, not an easy feat to accomplish. His arc, which pushes toward despair at the end of the play, is brilliantly executed, and you don’t realize that he’s broken your heart until it is too late.
Amber Iman’s Aldonza also breaks hearts, but with her tragedy instead of comedy. Her story is brutal and hard to watch, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away from Iman. She has a way of simultaneously embodying the coarse and the empathetic and putting those two feelings side by side so that the audience, much like in Warlow’s makeup transformation, can watch her slide from vicious to vulnerable in front of their eyes.
These three leads were well-played from an acting standpoint, but their singing raised the bar for the production. Joshi’s “I Like Him,” a bromantic silly song, had real feeling behind it, and nearly all of Iman’s numbers showed great touch and chops. But Warlow got the biggest response from the audience with the iconic song of the production “Dream the Impossible Dream.” He is a studied operatic singer, and his experience paid off big time for this number. I thought that the audience would give him a standing ovation right there!
While the leads’ singing was high class (not to mention the sweetest song in the show, “To Each His Dulcinea,” beautifully sung by Martín Solá), the real show-stealer is the production design. Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel showed a deft touch, making the Inquisition prison seem dark and ominous while never obscuring the action. Wierzel is also responsible for representing the infamous windmill with a neat trick that made people around me say “Ooooh!” under their breath.
Similarly, Costume Designer Ann Hould-Ward has made clothes for the actors that give them remarkable freedom of movement (watch the ensemble closely for some impressive acrobatic dance maneuvers) that you would expect from contemporary dance wear, but her relentless attention to detail keeps the actors firmly fixed in the world of the play.
Best of all is the set, which is a brilliant feat of engineering. Not only does the set feel vaultingly immense and modern, but its patina of apparent age (a skeuomorph if there ever was one) meshes well with Alan Paul’s overall vision. Even more impressive is the transformation of the set throughout the show, which was breathtaking. Here, STC maintains its well-deserved reputation for mind-blowing design that is sure to please any theater attendee.
MAN OF LA MANCHA
March 17 – May 3
Shakespeare Theatre Company at
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
1 hour, 55 minutes, no intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202.547.1122
Unfortunately, STC also delivered on another element of their reputation, though one that is less flattering. Of the 17 actors employed for Man of La Mancha, there is but one of them who makes their home locally. That’s James Konicek, who makes good in the small role of the Captain of the Inquisition and delivers his lines in the gorgeous basso profundo that audiences all over DC have come to admire. But, although this production puts several former locals, such as Nehal Joshi, onstage, it’s a disappointment (though not an unexpected one) that a DC institution that has trained so many classical DC actors and that is so beloved by DC audience can’t find room for DC actors on their stage. There’s plenty of talent here, but STC simply hasn’t made the effort to recognize, support and employ talented locals for this show.
But that is one of the few complaints that Man of La Mancha extracts from this reviewer. This musical is built to impress, and director Alan Paul has crafted a smart and entertaining show that DC audiences couldn’t get anywhere else. If you’re looking for a big ticket musical for a great night on the town, you can’t go wrong with Man of La Mancha.
Man of La Mancha . Book by Dale Wasserman . Music by Mitch Leigh . Lyrics by Joe Darion . Director: Alan Paul . Featuring Jay Adriel, Ceasar F. Barahas, Sidney DuPont, Joey Elrose, Maria Failla, Rayanne Gonzales, Amber Iman, Nehal Joshi, James Konicek, Nathan Lucrezio, Robert Mammana, JP Moraga, James Hayden Rodriguez, Dan Sharkey, Martin Sola, Anthony Warlow, Ethan Watermeier . Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward . Set Design: Allen Moyer . Sound Design: Ken Travis . Choreographers: Marcos Santana, assisted by Nova Bergeron . Muchael Directors: George Fulginiti-Shakar . Orchestration: Bill Yanesh . Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel . Wig Design: Dori Beau Seigneur . Fight Director: David Leong . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Alan Katz.