Nothing but the bare essentials for this multi-leveled, rich play, as staged by José Luis Arellano Garcia from Madrid, Spain. It’s his signature style, that won recognition with a 2016 Helen Hayes Award for director for Outstanding Direction for Yerma at GALA. The set design by Silvia de Marta is disarming. Three upstage doors reveal tree trunks and branches stripped of leaves. We are part of the action as actors enter from the aisles, shouting: “Cervantes! Cervantes! has died.”
But nobody in the street knows him, except Martín (Samy Khalil), who accuses Lope de Vega (Eugenio Villota), of murdering Cervantes, (Oscar de la Fuente). Lope who allegedly wrote hundreds of plays, of which only 400 survive, has a following who are convinced that Lope is the better writer. And they are fighting angry to the death. In 1616, the same year the great English playwright Shakespeare died, Cervantes died destitute and unrecognized. But right there, the similarity ends.
To call Miguel de Cervantes “the Spanish Shakespeare” is wrong, a huge misconception. Cervantes, who only wrote 30-40 plays, was not Shakespeare, just as Shakespeare was not Cervantes. They were two totally different personalities, inheritors of two totally different worlds. Cervantes is best remembered as the writer who wrote and published the prototype for the modern novel, in 1605: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha/El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, about a rebellious knight, equivalent to our legendary American cowboy, who goes mad after reading romantic, chivalric romances and does not see the world as it is. Don Quixote sets out during an unsettled time on a quest to rescue helpless women in distress, revive chivalry, rid the world of evil and bring justice to the world.
So who was this man, this Spaniard, this author so famous that this year marks the 400th anniversary celebration of his genius? As a playwright, Cervantes gives us grim snapshots of human history of Spain, as in Numancia (which actually took place in 133 BCE at a site two hours outside Madrid where you can still see the ruins), when a city of Spaniards preferred suicide to Roman rule. This was at a time when the Spanish Renaissance audience weren’t ready for Cervantes. So what kind of a life did Cervantes actually live that inspired his grim tragedies?
Kudos along with a standing ovation to José Luis Arellano Garcia for his team of actors, some who play multiple roles. Martín, who adopts the Sancho Panza role for Cervantes, is played solidly with aplomb and flair by Samy Khalil, (a television actor from Spain). Martín gives us a portrait of Cervantes, as if reciting a prologue. Cervantes, played by Oscar de la Fuente, hires Martín, as a supportive biographer, to record his life. As Martín describes it, a regal Cervantes strides from door frame to door frame of the three upstage arches. Cervantes stops and slowly turns in the last frame. It is as if a full-bodied portrait comes to life. The effect sent chills to my spine, it was so convincing. I was hooked.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in September 1547, in Alcalá, Spain. But unlike England’s Shakespeare never enjoyed popular success during his lifetime. In his own words, Cervantes makes peace with his own life as he confronts death. He wishes to become a priest before he dies, he tells Martín. Lying on his side on a tabletop, he asks God why he has been forsaken? He was a faithful Catholic. “I defended with my hand and my years as a tax collector the fight against the infidels. I was never with two women at once….Why do you shower glory on great sinners and deny it to me?”
Cervantes was like the artists who are forced to take day jobs to survive. And when he went on a quest for adventure in real life, all he found were “….jails, dungeons and shackles.” Then, in 1614, when a second part of Don Quixote was published by a mysterious, unknown imposter using the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, who wrote a fake Part II to enjoy the rising popularity of Part I (published in 1605), an enraged Cervantes sets out to find and confront the phony plagiarist. And the play becomes that man hunt.
Cervantes: The last Quixote
closes October 2, 2016
Details and tickets
Yet today, Cervantes is recognized and revered by literary scholars for both Parts I and II, as the greatest writer in the Spanish language, who wrote in everyday lingo that everyone could understand. Cervantes not only revolutionized language that led Spain out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance but also into our modern age.
Ironically, the greatest tribute to Cervantes comes from his literary rival, Lope de Vega, played with sweeping panache and passion by Eugenio Villota from Madrid: All of which prepares us for one of Jordi Casanova’s most beautiful passage in Cervantes: El ultimo Quixote, spoken by Lope de Vega: “But you’re the most ingenious, a writer who goes beyond what others know. You’ve discovered characters that transform: Now they’re mad, now they speak truths. Your own ideas come from the lips of a madman. You not only laugh at yourself, at your characters and the country….you laugh at the world. He who can laugh at the world can achieve something every writer seeks: immortality. And it will be thanks to those simple, comic creatures.”
Oscar de la Fuente, an award-winning, European actor, known for his classical roles, brings a gravitas and passionate commitment in playing the gargantuan role, Cervantes. Playwright Casanovas presents Cervantes as both a young and an old man, in 1614, as he reflects back 20 years. (Occasional projected date lines help. There could be more.) We see the contrast in the 1580 scenes, set in a prison as Cervantes plans another escape after surviving four. First, Cervantes was imprisoned in Algiers. And we see him outwitting his captors. De La Fuente, bare-chested, plays Cervantes ferociously as a younger man and makes a seamless transition into aging. It’s a brilliant portrayal.
What comes across is that Cervantes is a remarkably down-to-earth, human being. For example, as a young man, Cervantes lost his hand allegedly as the result of a war wound in the morale turning-point, the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571. (that had great significance in the Catholic resistance to Muslim Ottoman-Turk domination.) As the actor de la Fuente hugs his left hand, reduced to a stump, to his chest, we sense Cervantes’ vulnerability. Yet at the same time, as an old man, his wife Catalina tweaks his pride, his bragging about his war wounds as “beautiful.” What Cervantes calls “poetic license.”
Luz Nicolás succeeds in projecting an image of the overlooked wife who suffers silently. She’s the woman behind the man who never gets the credit she deserves, not even a mention in a prologue or an essay by Cervantes. But her presence is felt in just about every scene, even during intermission. Catalina, enacted with great dignity and reserve by Nicholás, sits at a table and reads excerpts out loud from the text of the novella, labeled Don Quixote. We are never allowed to forget the character who is more famous than his creator, Miguel de Cervantes. And Catalina, according to Jordi Casanovas, plays an important role in Cervantes’ completion of it.
Overall, it’s Luis Arellano’s signature, larger than life, symbolic directing style that holds us fixated. The humanizing touches for one thing. Cervantes, who was always in trouble with the law, wanted success in the theatre more than anything, not for personal glorification but to make money to free the other prisoners in Algiers. Yet he couldn’t sell anything to break out of poverty, as symbolized by wadded pages from published plays, scattered on the floor. And at one moment of grotesque horror, papers are stuffed in his mouth as he struggles between two prisoners.
The character of Isabel, who becomes the embodiment of the neglected, illegitimate child of a genius, Soraya Padrao hoists a bench over her head. She carries the burden of shame as an illegitimate child.
Actor Eugenio Villota, another European actor making his first appearance at GALA, brings Cervantes’ arch rival, Lope de Vega, to life with convincing bravado. Lope allegedly wrote hundreds of plays of which only 400 survive, is accused by Martin as Miguel’s murderer. In actuality, Lope de Vega overshadowed Cervantes, as Cervantes wrote only 30-40 plays but also the novella that made him internationally and historically famous.
But of course, the greatest irony of all, is that the Spanish King suspects Cervantes of stealing from the tax funds he has been collecting. It becomes a turning point. Cervantes is given the isolation he needs to finish his greatest masterpiece, for which he becomes internationally famous: Don Quixote de la Mancha Part II. And the actors transform before our very eyes, as if in a magic show. Cervantes dons a tin helmet to become Don Quixote who jumps on the back of Martín, who becomes his steed, Rocinante, and Cervantes’ imaginary world becomes reality.
Cervantes:El último Quixote/Cervantes:The Last Quixote a World Premiere by Jordi Casanovas . Directed by José Luis Arellano . CAST: Oscar de la Fuente (Cervantes). José González (Diego, Man in Tavern, Man in Street 3). Samy Khalil (Martín, Man in Tavern). Luz Nicolás (Catalina, Magdalena, Woman in Tavern). Soraya Padrao (Isabel, Ana de Villafranca, Woman). Eric Robledo (Juan Gil, Gaspar de Porres, Man in the Street 2, Doctor). Erick Sotomayor (Man in the Street 1, Antonio de Sosa, Jerónimo Velásquez Juan Saenz), Eugenio Villota (Lope de Vega, Juan Blanco de Paz) . Scenic Design by Silvia de Marta . Lighting Design by Christopher Annas-Lee . Costume Design by Silvia de Marta . Composer: Mariano Vales . Sound Design by April Kelli Sturdivant; Video Design by Alvaro Luna; Properties Design by Alicia Tessari; Stage Manager, Nelly Díaz-Rodríguez . Production Manager by Lena Salins . Production Manager (Spain) by David Peralto . Producer: Hugo Medrano . Commissioned and produced by GLA Hispanic Theatre Review by Rosalind Lacy.