Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company

When you enter Sidney Harman Hall these days, you can see right away that theatre is afoot.  And not just any theatre- musical theatre, because you might just notice an orchestra tucked away in the corner of the mezzanine level of the hall.  It would be understandable if you didn't notice them, of course, as there's quite a lot else that might catch your eye.  For one, Allen Moyer's massive set forms a rigid cage around 2/3 of the stage. For another, cast members are already onstage, in character as the wretched denizens of a 16th century Spanish prison.

Director Alan Paul's production of  Man of La Mancha (with a book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion) is a natural extension of the theatre's recent foray into producing musical theatre.  Like previous productions of Candide and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, La Mancha is based on a classic piece of literature. Unlike the other productions, there's a particular level of schlock and sentimental nostalgia that surrounds La Mancha and in particular, That Song. You know the one.  Directing this piece is a big challenge for any director, so how does Paul measure up?

First, he has assembled a cast with talent and presence enough to fill the space with ease.  Anthony Warlow is a giant, with a voice that is practically perfect in every way, as well as a tender stage presence able to capture the larger than life Don Quixote, the frail Alonso Quixana, and the imprisoned Don Miguel de Cervantes. Amber Iman's Aldonza is woman resigned to a lifetime navigating a difficult and oppressive situation when she meets the impossible Quixote. Her performance captivates the audience, as she captures the bitter anger, the incredible strength, and the fragile hope of Aldonza.  Nehal Joshi, who recently starred in the Dallas Theatre Center's inspired reimagining of Les Miserables, is a beaming source of joy as the servant/squire Sancho (watch out for the business with the bench, because it's a wonderful moment of meticulously crafted comic timing).  The rest of the ensemble is excellent and up to the challenge of supporting the three leads, but the show does rise and fall according to their strengths.

What are the other pillars of Paul's production?  One is, of course, how to manage That Song.  "The Impossible Dream" has been recorded by just about every major solo singer in the past fifty years. It is as beloved as it is overdone.  It is massively sentimental and yet genuinely inspiring. It's That Song, and when it has such a wide and ranging life outside the musical, how do you actually stage it in the moment? Do you have to dress it up in something new to make it seem relevant? Do you have to make your actor sing it while dangling from wires over the audience? Paul's answer is the most straightforward possible: you put it in the hands of Anthony Warlow, you stick him downstage center with a spotlight on his face, and you let him go, trusting the artist to make the song seem new and immediate. From the thunderous applause that swelled up at the song's conclusion, it seems that the technique worked.

The final pillar of La Mancha is the production's absolute embrace of the text's metatheatrical concept. Wasserman's adaptation of Cervantes' novel depends on a prison full of hostile inmates choosing to go along with a writer's vision, to take up parts and act out a story that they can hardly know. If you think about it too long, none of this REALLY makes sense (if it's unfolding in real time, when on earth did anyone explain the basic storyline to anyone else? HOW DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT?), but that's beside the point. What's far more important is how they, and we in the audience, respond to the elemental power of theatre.  When the music swells into "I, Don Quixote," we get chills, and when the actors reveal Sancho and Don Quixote riding majestic steeds fashioned out of benches, buckets and mops, there was a burst of delighted applause from the audience. One of the joys of this production is watching how the prisoners take to the opportunity to suddenly play a part.  Dan Sharkey's Governor is willing enough to play an innkeeper, but hand him a sword? He'll barely be able to stop swinging it around at make-believe enemies himself.  Everyone in La Mancha shares a universal ability to tap into that same mythic, imaginative, theatrical excitement. The Governor can adapt his language, expand his imagination, and dive into the role-within-the-role; the greater the leap outside yourself, the more transformative the performance can be. Paul's direction brings these elements skillfully to the foreground, while stopping short of straying into the didactic or turning the play into an after-school special on "The Magic of Theatre!". 

As a text, I have some quibbles with Man of La Mancha. It's frustrating to watch what amounts to the story of a man of intense privilege swanning into a complex system of oppression, claiming to know best when he is woefully ignorant about the realities of that system, and "saving" a woman with actions that lead her directly into a horrifically brutal gang rape.  It's incredibly hard to watch, and it's frustrating to see those undercurrents that are inextricably part of the Don Quixote story.  But Paul's production is honest to the text while not wallowing in the dark, and this La Mancha retains a light touch even during the third reprise of That Song. I've been waiting to see Man of La Mancha since I was thirteen and brought the soundtrack home from the library, and this production was worth waiting for. Highly recommended.


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