Within the next few weeks, two noted playwrights will be taking fresh looks at a pair of classic tales.
Octavio Solis has taken as his inspiration Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and created Quixote Nuevo, a contemporary take on the tale which runs through Sunday, Oct. 13 at Hartford Stage. The show, which will also play Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company and Houston’s Alley Theatre, is directed by KJ Sanchez.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s inspiration for the world premiere of Girls comes from a Greek classic, Euripides’ The Bacchae; Girls is receiving its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, from Friday, Oct. 4 through Saturday, Oct. 26.
“These works are appealing because the plays are so good in spite of being so very old,” says Jacobs-Jenkins. “They also seen actively obsessed with questions of identity and democracy.”
He points out that the Greeks’ idea of democracy was “the bedrock of American self-conception.”
‘We Wanted to Go to the Party’
The playwright, whose The Octoroon and Gloria were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, says when he teaches classes on adaptations, the era and the genre that goes over best with students is always the Greek classics.
“Perhaps it’s because they’re such stunning examples of economy in storytelling, especially [the plays of] Euripides. They’re so modern it feels like psychology. And this is the last Greek play we have extant. It’s such an amazing piece of writing.”
When considering The Bacchae, Jacobs-Jenkins said he and friend and director Lileana Blain-Cruz asked themselves what they both most responded to.
“We agreed that we wanted to go to the party,” he says, referring to the original character of Dionysus, the spurned son of Zeus, who seeks revenge by driving the women of Thebes into an ecstatic frenzy, much to the horror of their families.
This is how Yale Rep describes the play: “Exiled to boarding schools for his entire life, Deon returns to his birthplace with a vengeance—luring the women of the town to the woods for a night of uninhibited partying. Meanwhile, a young reactionary with a big social media following condemns the debauchery and vows to restore order.”
“We tried to make a version of The Bacchae that is set at the event itself,” he says, adding that he created the Greek Chorus, “not as a single body but as a bunch of individuals who make up a larger group.”
Much of the play is seen through the lens of social media, he says.
“This felt very timely. I’ve always resisted things like video and technology in my work because I’m such a traditionalist but I felt this was an opportunity so we’re exploring how you actually out the Internet on stage?”
Honoring Cervantes and Self
A few years ago Octavio Solis was commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival to do a stage adaptation of Don Quixote.
“At the end of the day I felt like I was honoring Cervantes, but I wasn’t finding my own voice in the work,” he says.
So when California Shakespeare approached Solis about further adapting the work, they encouraged him to use the book as inspiration for a new work of his own.
“That’s what I wanted,” he says. “And that’s what we did. I practically wrote them a new play.”
The result is Quixote Nuevo, which is opening the 2019-’20 season at Hartford Stage under its new artistic director Melia Bensussen.
He set it in a Texas border town like the one he where grew up in El Paso, Texas.
“That’s where most of my plays come from. I’m a child of the border,” he says. “I took the novel from Cervantes’s hands and made the story mine.”
His hero is a professor, a Cervantes scholar, who, at the end of his life, is experiencing the initial stages of dementia, conflating elements from his past with events from the novel. He can’t tell what is real and what is not.
He says there’s even a Dulcinea character in the form of a woman the professor loved when he was younger. When they first met, she and her parents were working seasonally on his father’s field. He sought for many years to bring her over and he feels this is now or never because he hears that they’re building a wall on the border. There’s even a Sancho Panza character in the form of a neighbor who sells ice pops from a cart with a little donkey painted on its side.
“This time I wrote something for me, for our times and something I hope will resonate with what we’re going through today,” he says.
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years. His website is: https://showriz.com/