Man of la Mancha
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman Beaudin
April 26, 2008
Man of la Mancha is a play of trials. Based, of course, on Miguel de Cervantes's novel, Don Quixote, the play tells the story of the character, Cervantes, who is put in prison with his manservant, waiting for the Inquisition to try him. In the prison are several other criminals who accuse him of being a poet and an idealist. If he is found guilty, his possessions—including his precious manuscript—will be burned.
To defend himself against the prisoners' charges—not to deny that he is an idealist but to defend why he is and should be—Cervantes acts out a play which tells the story of Quixote, a man who lives by high ideals. During the play, Cervantes puts Idealism on trial both for his fellow prisoners—and for the theater audience. (Can a room full of hardened New Yorkers afford to "dream the impossible dream" of Cervantes' hero? Should we want to?)
Watching the play, I realized that the challenge of putting up this famous work is for the audience to connect with the actual message of the show, not to just sit back waiting to hear the famous songs. In that regard, the Gallery Players' production does several things right.
First off, director Tom Wojtunik rightly creates a straightforward take on the play without trying to be clever or to separate the audience from its setting. The play uses period costumes and props and a set that shows a 16th century prison. At the start of the play, Wojtunik sets the mood by having actors already on Martin Andrew's dimly lit, dirty, dank prison set. Some are curled up, sleeping on the floor like homeless people do today. One prisoner plays a beat-up guitar and another sings. Other prisoners enter and take their places slowly, creating a mood that the prisoners are tired and worn down.
When Cervantes and his servant enter, the others are intimidating and rough towards the newcomers, as are the prison guards. This is important, for the character Cervantes must win them over and they, therefore, must be a true opposition. More importantly, later in the play, whenever the guards come in, there are screeching sounds and dramatic light changes, signifying agony and fear. The scary costumes, designed by David Winthrow, show that the reality that Cervantes is idealizing really is harsh.
Another place where this production succeeds is in the acting. The principals and the ensemble do wonderful work. Of the principals, Jennifer McCabe as Aldonza/Dulcinea really catches hold of the part. Her voice is beautiful and emotional, ranging from high, sweet, and sad to tough and angry. Through her acting, she successfully establishes a hardness and bitterness, then a vulnerability. When hearing her songs, I really found myself listening to her story, not just the technique of her voice.
As Sancho Panza/Servant, Robert Anthony Jones is comic relief, a good-natured character. He is a little schmaltzy, but I think the character is written for that. I believed his loyalty to Quixote/Cervantes, and I believed his need for their friendship.
Jan-Peter Pedross's performance as Cervantes/Quixote works well because the actor completely submits himself to the idealism of the part. When the song—that song—came up, I later thought about how difficult it must be for an actor to perform a known "show-stopper" and still feel like the character, not an actor performing in a theatre. Wojtunik places him downstage center, facing the audience, declaring his quest directly to the crowd, and he pulls it off. Another thing I commend about his performance is his clear transitions between characters, for he plays three men: Cervantes, Quixote, and Alonso Quijana.
Of the strong ensemble, some who stood out for me are Mark Kirschenbaum, Dawn Derow, and Angela Dirksen, especially in their three-part number, "I'm Only Thinking of Him." James Andrew Walsh as the the Duke and Dr. Carrasco also makes a clear journey from wanting to rob Cervantes to seeing the wisdom of his ideals. I love how the ensemble as a whole changed from mocking Quixote to sitting with rapt attention, begging to see more of the story.
Bravo to the production's band, upstage of and above the performers, which plays perfectly under Chris Tilley's musical direction.
Overall, Wojtunik and the Gallery Players have mounted another successful show, and I enjoyed Man of la Mancha quite a bit. Did it successfully pull me in and ask me to question my own idealism? Well, to answer, I'll say this: I came into the theatre mainly looking forward to listening to the songs, and I left the theater feeling connected to the ideas.