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Man of La Mancha

It’s All Merely Delusional

Book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Monday, March 23, 2015, Q–6&8 (back right stalls)
Directed by Alan Paul

Sancho with high round hat blowing on a bugle, Quiote in armor, yellow curtain handing over a wood pole service as a jousting spear, both on a donkeya nd horse, respectiely, made out of benches, barrels, baskets and pails.
Sancho (Nehal Joshi, left) and Don Quixote (Anthony Warlow) ride toward their destiny in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Man of La Mancha. Their equine modes of transportation are created out of objects in the prison where the framework play is set. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Delusions seem to be occupying a big part of my life lately. I mean that professionally, not personally. I hope.

Man of La Mancha at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) is the latest in a trend of theater presentations we’ve attended this year to focus on the delusional nature of man. Under Alan Paul's confident and intelligent direction, this new staging of the 1965 Broadway hit is a spirited production with top-tier talent. Yet, as uplifting as the performances are, as stirring as the music is (if you don’t feel your heart shuddering with “The Impossible Dream,” get to a hospital fast—you might already be dead), as optimistic as the play’s theme may be, I came out of the theater meditating on the delusion of it all.

Our theatrical year of 2015, so far, has been dominated by delusion. The Updates page of Shakespeareances.com seems to be devoted to delusion, with Man of La Mancha at the top: Grounded (Air Force drone pilot suffering PTSD-induced paranoia), The Iceman Cometh (a play that refers to pipe dreams 39 times), The Metromaniacs (with more mistaken identities and disguises than the entire Shakespeare canon comprises), Dunsinane (a sequel to Macbeth where nothing is what it seems), and Mary Stuart (Mary Stuart herself). Shakespeare productions are falling into this trend, too. Aquila Theatre’s touring production of The Tempest turned Shakespeare’s fable into a meditation on a lifetime of imagination and aspiration. The Pearl Theatre Company staged The Winter’s Tale through the delusional mind of Leontes. Synetic Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing was set in a 1950s Las Vegas casino, the embodiment of delusion. Even my commentaries focus on delusion: “A Life of Delusions Takes Flight” is the headline on my Academy Awards–timed essay on Birdman and Shakespeare, and what is the Tournament of Shakespeareances I’m currently playing but one big delusion? Heck, even the Sarah McLachlan concert last week…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Maybe it’s just me. After all, my first wife told people that I suffered from delusions of grandeur. She was right and I still do. This website is ongoing self-incriminating testimony. Evidence A, though, is how, in the aftermath of that first marriage crumbling, I deluded myself into thinking that a hot, intelligent, competent, professional woman named Sarah would ever give me the time of day, let alone like me, let alone want me, let alone love me, let alone marry me, let alone remain my wife for 23 years and, best I can tell, plans to continue being so for at least a couple more years. That has been one incredible delusion, but it’s resulted in a life of grandeur, I can tell you that.

Which brings us back to Man of La Mancha, both on stage and in the wider theater experience; and, by extension, in the mindset of the company that is staging it. STC sounds almost apologetic that it has begun staging musicals, acknowledging that it’s a departure from the company’s original mission to stage “classics.” STC kept to the classics label with its first musical in 2010, the Mary Zimmerman–directed Candide, which, despite some technical problems, proved to be a stirring success. Selections since have all had some relationship, however tenuous, with Shakespeare. Last year’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, also directed by Paul, is based on the works of Plautus who influenced Shakespeare. This year, the connection is Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, the man of La Mancha, and is a character in the musical and was a contemporary of Shakespeare. Next year’s STC schedule has Paul mounting Kiss Me, Kate, which truly is Shakespearean, a derivative of The Taming of the Shrew.

Well, stop apologizing, STC. I say ignore the hoities and the toities who don't see American musicals as "classics" in their own right. As long as you give us a couple of good Shakespeares (such as the As You Like It and The Tempest that started the current season), treat us to some modern Shakespeare interpretations (such as the National Theatre of Scotland production of Dunsinane), and keep up the French revival stuff (such as The Metromaniacs), then have at it with musicals, too, especially if they are as good as this Man of La Mancha.

Paul’s brilliance in helming Man of La Mancha starts with the creative team and cast he gathered. The set of Scenic Designer Allen Moyer, who has both Broadway and international opera credentials and did Private Lives at STC last year, is a large cage set inside a fortress wall representing the prison in Seville where all the action takes place. At the top is a catwalk from which a large metal stairway lowers for authorities and their guards to deliver and retrieve the prisoners. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design creates a lattice pattern on the stage—daylight streaming through metal grates—and subtle highlights during performances. STC and DC-theater staple George Fulginiti-Shakar directs an 11-piece orchestra comprising winds, brass, drums, bass, and, most notably, keyboards (Jose Simbulan) and guitar (Gerry Kunkel).

Cast to play Cervantes, who plays Alonso Quijana who turns himself into Don Quixote, is Anthony Warlow, a star of the Australian theater and opera stages (the original Phantom in that country’s production of Phantom of the Opera) and a Grammy winner for his part in the 2012 Broadway cast recording of Annie. Though opera training is evident in his voice and the masterful way he traverses the register, he sings with the easy comfort of a barroom baritone. What makes his “Impossible Dream” so stunning is that he never wavers from being Don Quixote as he sings it, remaining in character so that the song’s heroic structure is embedded in the performance. Similarly, Nehal Joshi shows off a solid singing voice while embracing the comical naïveté of Sancho, and Amber Iman rocks the house and thrills the hearts with her Aldonza, presenting a character of street-smart sass, deep-bosomed soul, and majestic song, all in one.

The entire cast is a tight and talented unit, working as one—even when being two. Man of La Mancha is a play within a play. Soldier-actor-tax-collector and wannabe author Cervantes, along with his manservant (who becomes Sancho), are newly arrived at the prison to await trial by the Spanish Inquisition after he legally places a lien on a monastery for failing to pay its taxes. He stages his story of Don Quixote to stave off attack by the other prisoners and destruction of his treasured manuscript. Having caught his cellmates' interest, Cervantes recruits them to play parts in the play. Standout performances include Dan Sharkey as the “Governor” (top dog in the cell and innkeeper in the play), Robert Mammana as the cynical “Duke” cast to play the cynical Dr. Carrasco, and Martín Solá as a flippant prisoner who instantly reforms into the scene-stealing Padre. Beyond the singing quality of each individual and the ensemble (when they first ease into “Little Bird, Little Bird,” it reminds me of vintage Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, such perfect harmonies), the flamenco-inspired dancing, choreographed by Marcos Santana, is Marine-drill-unit sharp, and the battle of the kitchen, choreographed by David Leong, is precision chaos.

For the most part, each member remains on stage for the whole action, sliding in and out of their various characters while they stand or sit on the perimeter. Stage illusions appear through slight of hand—or body. How Don Quixote’s horse and Sancho’s donkey are suddenly created with barrels, benches, pails, baskets, and mops during the opening number, “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote),” draws applause. Before the play starts, a prisoner is shackled to a large wheel at the back of the stage, a wheel that indirectly becomes a windmill. No set changes; scenes are created out of tables, chairs, and other props or people in the prison. A prisoner on the second-floor gangway leisurely leaning against the back wall of the cell turns out to be the crucifix in the church scene.

That’s the essence of Man of La Mancha. Like the literary masterpiece that inspired it (the musical is not an adaptation of Cervantes’ novel) and the play within the play that is the play, the production itself seems created out of the whole cloth of imagination: ours as much as that of Paul and company. It’s an illusion; or a delusion—the separation between the two can be slim. And with this production, the medium is very much central to the message.

Man of La Mancha, at least in Paul’s staging, is not an upbeat thing. The rape of Aldonza—at the very moment she has embodied Quixote’s ideal of Dulcinea—is disturbing in its viciousness. The prisoners never lose their threatening veneer (which makes those dual portrayals all the more stunning), and Don Quixote is defeated by a knight of mirrors, who forces Quixote to look at his reflection and see what he really is, nothing more (or less) than Alonso Quijana. That stirring ending of Don Quixote ascending to heaven is really Cervantes climbing the stairs to certain conviction at the hands of the Inquisition.

Aldonza in colorful kitchen wench outfit surrounded by men singing, with Pedro humping up toward her, legs splaid, leaning back.
Aldonza (Amber Iman) is accosted by Pedro (Ceasar F. Barajas) and other muleteers at the inn—from left, Juan (Joey Elrose), Paco (Sidney DuPont), Anselmo (Nathan Lucrezio), Jose (James Hayden Rodriguez), and Tenorio (JP Moraga)—in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Man of La Mancha. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Don Quixote’s life, Sancho’s life, and the sudden detour of Aldonza’s life, are all delusions. Cervantes has had delusions of grandeur his whole life, and what he believes to be the honest duty of a tax collector turns out to be a delusion. The prisoners ridicule him, but end up indulging themselves with delusion by watching, and playing in, Cervantes’s play: notably, they don’t want it to end. Cervantes gives the play's keystone speech preaching that real life is too hard to bear without delusions, blurring the demarcation between faith and escape. Yet, the story's backdrop points to another side of delusion, one that dictates the harsh life so many people must bear. Those hoity toities up there above the action comprise the Spanish Inquisition, an entity that held to its own delusions to create a world of physical, financial, and spiritual hell for an entire population. If you draw a line from that to the present day—to whatever entity your line ultimately reaches—you can see why 2015 seems to be the year of delusion. We are feeling hemmed in by the omnipresent effects of so many deluded entities.

However, even in the dramatic telling of Man of La Mancha, the delusion of the individual is in itself heroic. The subtitle of “The Impossible Dream” points to the song’s primary service to the plot: It’s not about the dream, it’s about “The Quest.” In the face of so much adversity in our individual lives—the “whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes” that Hamlet ponders on—and in the face of a world seeming to be ever on the brink of chaos and self-destruction, it is the quest to make it all better that makes us essential. Even if we feel we ultimately can’t make a change, it is such a quest that makes us human, as McLachlan said at a recent concert in introducing her song “World on Fire,” which has this chorus:

The world's on fire and
It's more than I can handle
I'll tap into the water
(Try and bring my share)
I try to bring more
More than I can handle
(Bring it to the table)
Bring what I am able.

What theater brings to that table is a veritable feast. Maybe we are deluding ourselves when we tuck our heads into the sand of some playwright’s work for a few hours and think the world is better for it. But we are better for it, and so are our lives, and with that little stone, the ripples of delusions may spread far beyond the prison cells of our existence.

Eric Minton
March 25, 2015

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