A Most Satisfying Quest
Who would want to try a new take on Miguel de Cervantes “Don Quixote” when the “Man from La Mancha” is one of the most successful musicals in theater history? Playwrights who could craft a script that is a continual source of laughs would if they could find actors who could inhabit the lead parts with the highest professionalism. Those conditions are fulfilled in Marin Shakespeare’s production of Peter Anderson and Colin Heath’s “Don Quixote”.
The premise of the play is that an old gentleman, Alonso Quijana, becomes so steeped in the literature of chivalry that he fancies himself a knight-errant. As the self-appointed Don Quixote, The Knight of the Woeful Countenance, he sets out to conquer wrongdoers and to pursue to damsel of his dreams, Dulcinea. In need of a squire, Quixote drafts the gullible peasant Sancho Panza with the promise of a governorship. The pair embark on Quixote’s quest, and one misadventure after another ensues.
Ron Campbell as Don Quixote and John R. Lewis as Sancho Panza provide truly masterful depictions that would satisfy audiences on any stage. Campbell, a master clown, creates a delusional but resolute Quixote that evokes audience empathy. Miraculously, he maintains a deer-in-the-headlight visage throughout, whether in bluster or in reflection. Yes, he has beady blue eyes, not large brown eyes, but if you see them, you’ll see it. Lewis also maintains a wide-eyed countenance, conveying innocence and hope. He’s a perfect complement to Campbell and pretty well matches his acting chops.
The acting ensemble of Cassidy Brown, Rick Eldridge, Lee Fitzpatrick, Monica Ho, and Jed Pesario perform too many roles to count. They are the loving support system and the many antagonists along Quixote and Panza’s journey. All five flip characterizations as fast and adeptly as a magician flips cards.
Sometimes, especially early on, it is hard to tell which ensemble actor is playing a role. That brings us to the other star of the production, David Poznanter, who designed and hand-crafted over 25 unique commedia dell’arte masks for the actors. The use of masks is specified by the playwrights.
Each mask creates strong characterization, whether through a bulbous nose or a grimly arched brow. But actors’ mouths and jawlines are exposed, and the precision contouring of the masks allows full expression of the eyes. The use of masks largely counters annoyance the audience may have in seeing multiple characters who are so obviously played by the same actor. Masks further symbolize one of the play’s overarching themes of the thin divide between fantasy and reality.
Yet, in one of the most touching scenes, a duet with Campbell set to guitar music, Fitzpatrick appears without a mask. But she sustains the fantasy/reality duality in a speechless scene as she artfully transforms herself from a shrouded and hunched old lady to the beautiful Dulcinea and back.
Other production values are unspectacular, but effective. The central feature of the set is an adobe-like wall having ramps that zig and zag from top down to stage. It serves well as a trail for Quixote’s prancing, astride his broomstick and oil can steed, Rocinante. Props are often simple but clever. Pillows act as sheep, so we are spared the blood letting from Quixote’s belief the sheep are soldiers. The four windmill sails are in the form of a large cross made of pipe that actors spin like batons – or windmills.
The script of “Don Quixote” is strong overall, but the snappiness of the second act doesn’t quite meet the first. Also, there may be too many “wink-wink” jokes. Yet, it is a fine script with warmth and sorrow as well as humor. Director Lesley Shisgall Currier and her artistic team and actors have taken that script and turned it into a worthy entertainment.