In a bold-but-faithful interpretation of the classic musical, Harlequin’s vision puts the tale in a new light. Even from Seattle to Olympia, it’s worth the trip. It runs through July 27.
The clouds adorning the lobby ceiling of the State Theater, home to Olympia’s Harlequin Productions, seem to suggest it: Dream big. The sky’s the limit.
The title character of Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote de La Mancha, certainly believes the sentiment. And judging from the strength and vision of its current production, directed by Artistic Director Aaron Lamb, Harlequin is a believer, too. In whatever form you’ve seen Man of La Mancha before — or the literary classic which inspired it — this one is different.
Quixote lives in a fantasy world. From a reality that had either bored the life out of him or proven too much hurt to abide with, he turned to a world of his own imagination, where he finds his beloved Dulcinea, battles giants, and is knighted for his exemplary valor and chivalry.
The problem with his fantasy land is the rest of the world has to deal with reality, both before and after Quixote passes through. That reality, difficult enough on its own, often worsens when he invades and disrupts it.
In Harlequin’s production, it’s the tragedy of Dulcinea — actually Aldonza to everyone but Quixote — that’s the centerpiece of this phenomenon; and it’s one heightened in the era of #metoo (and Harlequin’s own well-publicized fall and reinvention, frankly). Quixote “discovers,” renames, and redefines Aldonza, based on a person of his own imagination; he wraps her up in his fantasy land, then abandons her to fend for herself in the real world — left to the vile hands of townsfolk whose scorn and desire to control her is inflamed by Quixote’s fixation. By both, she’s treated as a conquest, whether the pursuit is cloaked in adoration or bare as hostility.
Man of La Mancha (by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion) is a play-within-a-play. In one world, it hints at the abuses of the Spanish Inquisition and the fickleness of the rule of law, while a prisoner — the Don Quixote author, Miguel de Cervantes — seeks favor from his peers and captors by dazzling them with an epic tale, thereby creating the second world. Fantasy here is Cervantes’s escape, just as it is Don Quixote’s.
But it’s Harlequin’s telling of it that takes a world of fantasy and makes it resonant, relevant to the times and utterly, brutally human. Part of it is the staging, in which actors descend the aisles and the action is never too far removed from the audience; the pomp removed, stripped down to a cast that can fit on the stage but evokes a feeling of confinement; all on a set that’s at once utilitarian, harsh, and beautiful. Towering windmills are brought to life with imposing light projections on the floor. It speaks of a world that’s both limitless and confining.
A gem in this retelling is Monique Holt, whose Aldonza is a force in contrasts: no-nonsense yet vulnerable, disillusioned yet yearning, hidden away but radiant. Holt also is deaf, as is her character in this production. But the incorporation of deafness here is no gimmick. Rather, Aldonza’s deafness brings out the power dynamics already present in the story. In this version, Holt’s gift with artistic sign language and visual cues conveys both her character’s isolation (as the only deaf person in the town) and the stoniness with which she’s learned to approach the unpleasant characters around her.
In song, Aldonza finds voice through both Holt’s visual expression and Cassi Q Kohl’s vocals. It’s a concept that works — Kohl’s vocals are beautiful, and her presence is removed enough from the scene that it doesn’t confuse or distract, as the concept easily could have. But it’s here that some direction is lacking, for the sung interpretation lacks the feeling Aldonza conveys on stage, when emoting anything unpleasant — scorn or disgust, for example. Some minor adjustments would have made the most of their connection.
The show wouldn’t work without a convincing Don Quixote — endearing, courageous, and foolhardy — and Galloway Stevens pulls the part off wonderfully. Around them is a talented cast, including Fune Tautala in several roles, and Nick Hall as sidekick Sancho Panza.
Man of La Mancha is easy to put on as mere fantasy, and rest on its entertainment value. Harlequin’s entertains, surely — it had a happy crowd and a standing ovation (a deserved one, in my view). But it goes further, probing (with nuance) the decision to withdraw from reality and the relationships of human decision-making with one another, rather than centering the obtuse adventurer battling windmills. Holt’s Aldonza and Stevens’s Quixote engage a power dynamic that permeates the piece; the good, the bad, the repulsive (male) behavior — all are strengthened, obvious, palpable, visual. And so is Quixote’s abandonment of her. It’s a savior complex gone horribly wrong.
On the biggest stages, these human conflicts too easily get lost to fantasy and spectacle — much like Quixote himself. In contrast, Harlequin’s staging of the tale keeps humanity, in all its vulnerability, conflict, misfires, and messiness, at center stage. And it’s those themes that make the show feel just right for our times.
My one (significant) gripe with the show applies well beyond Harlequin. Theatres have got to figure out a different way of soliciting money. Curtain calls are bad enough — countless times, I’ve been taken out of post-show contemplation right away by a sudden dive into the “ticket sales cover only 40%” speech. When I’ve sat through two hours of “thought-provoking art,” haven’t I earned a right to process it for more than three seconds?
Harlequin’s move, though, was even bolder, and threatened the show experience from the start. At the top of the performance, horns blared, actor-musicians marched down from aisle tops, and an exciting transformation from pedestrian life to Spanish Inquisition had begun! No, wait — seriously? It was not in fact a well-designed grand entrance to the show, but the heralding of a few-minutes-long (seemed like an eternity) list of sponsorship thank-yous. Suspend your disbelief, please. We’re hear to tell you about tax people and plumbers and radio stations and … whatever. It took me out of the show, badly — and that I was pulled back in so quickly was a testament to the show and its actors, by no means a given. Sponsors, the speech does not make me like you better. Theatres, if sponsors seek this level of intrusion, they don’t appreciate your art, your actors — or your audience.
Man of La Mancha runs through 7/27 at the State Theater in downtown Olympia. Tickets $42, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom near the entrance to house left. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.