Man of La Mancha – Review by Tom Nissley

A perfectly beautiful production of the operatic “Man of La Mancha” is playing at the Westport Country Playhouse. Directed by Mark Lamos, it’s one of the finest presentations I’ve seen in this theater, with a beautifully selected cast, fast-moving adaptations to the music and story, on a glorious set (Wilson Chin) with expert lighting (Alan C. Edwards) and great costumes (Fabian Fidel Aguilar). Andrew David Sotomayor directs the music.

It’s hard to find enough good words to describe how grand the production is. Sure, you should run to see it. And it helps to know that the story takes place in a Spanish prison at the time of the Inquisition, when a poet and actor, Miguel de Cervantes (Philip Hernandez) is thrown into the dungeon with his servant Sancho (Tony Manna). The other prisoners always have a hazing trial for newcomers and divide up their possessions – in this instance the poet convinces the prisoners that he will get them to act out a play that he has written to serve as his defense. They agree to that, and off we go into the world of a country squire named Alonso Quixano, who imagines a life as Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha.

Cervantes dresses on stage, becoming, as he says, a knight errant. Almost immediately he sees the evil challenger in the road ahead of him. Sancho sees only a windmill, but Quixote attacks it, and gets thrown down in the process. Caught up in his imagination, he sees a castle further along, where Sancho sees only a country inn. They enter it, and find an innkeeper and his wife, who accept them as guests.

There are other guests – a group of muleteers – who are regular guests of the inn and from time to time used to collecting sexual favors from Aldonza, a servant girl, whether she wants that or not. When Quixote spies Aldonza (Gisela Aldisa), he immediately sees her as his secret idol, a pure and beautiful virgin, and refers to her as Dulcinea. Aldonza is no virgin, and she is confused by his attention, but the way that his rapt devotion feels good and transforms her self-image is a key theme of Cervantes’ story.

When a barber (Esteban Suero) enters the inn, wearing a shaving basin on his head. Quixote declares that the basin is in reality the sacred Golden Helmet of Mambrino and takes it as new headgear. Soon after that he convinces the innkeeper, or as he calls him, the Lord of the Castle, to dub him a knight, and give him a new name: The Knight of the Woeful Countenance. When Aldonza asks what motivates Quixote, he tells and sings to her of his Quest to serve and honor and bring justice, and his belief that one person, no matter how scarred, who is true to his higher self can change the world. The Impossible Dream.

There are four other characters in Cervantes’ tale. The folks back home, who with different motivations are ‘only thinking of him.’ Quixano’s niece Antonia (Paula Hernandez), Antonia’s fiancé Dr. Carrasco (Clay Singer), his Housekeeper (Lulu Picart), and the Village Padre (Carlos Encinas). Carrasco believes in tough love and shock therapy and uses an approach that involves mirrors to bring the aging Knight back to reality. It nearly succeeds. Quixano begins to dictate a will to the Padre, leaving his estate to Antonia.

But when Sancho and Aldonza insist on bringing farewells to the old man, they remind him of his journey to fight against evil and follow his dream. Aldonza says she goes by the name he gave her, ‘Dulcinea.’ Suddenly Quixote returns for a last gasp of love and character before he dies, as surely escorted into Paradise as any hero in any tale.

The stairway descends into the prison. The guards have come to take Cervantes and Sancho to their trial. The prisoners left below encourage them to be as quick with a defense there as they have in the prison, and join in singing the song he taught them about reaching for the stars and dreaming the impossible dream.

There are not enough words to describe how excellent the production is. Every voice has been chosen for rich quality, and that must include not only the astounding Philip Hernandez, but also Lulu Picart, Gisela Adesa, Paula Hernandez, Tony Manna, Michael Mendez, Esteban Suero, Clay Singer, Ian Paget, Caesar Barajas, and Carlos Encinas, each of whom have special arias in this musical which is so much a folk opera. The prisoners are the Ensemble; they are the actors and dancers in Cervantes’ tale, from the first steps of the two amazing horses (Jermaine Rowe and Michael Scott Gomez) to the Muleteers’ attack on Aldonza, and the reality scene with mirrors.

If you know and love this show, or have never seen it before, you will be delighted. In the process you will see two very different approaches to the therapy of wounded souls. On the one hand there is Quixote’s approach to Aldonza, who has been abused ever since her mother left her in a ditch when she was born. For good reasons she responds to the verbal caress of the name ‘Dulcinea.’ She feels respect and caring that allows her to heal from within. On the other hand, there is the tough love and confrontation by Dr. Carrasco for what he considers the madness of Quixano. His shock treatment with mirrors succeeds, for a while, in casting off the delusions of knighthood and justice. Happily, for an enthusiastic audience, the Quest for the Dream surfaces and survives.

You have only two weeks to get to see this show. Call 203-222-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org for tickets or information

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre October 1

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