Sunday, August 22, 2010

MAN OF LA MANCHA • Insight Theatre Company


Tonight after a lovely dinner with my favorite Jew, Amy Fenster Brown, we headed to Heagney Theatre to check out Insight Theatre Company's production of MAN OF LA MANCHA (book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh).  Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves is a nice little space with around 350 seats.  Not really a bad seat in there.  I'd never been in there before, nor had I seen this show, that debuted in 1965.

So, it's Spanish Inquisition time and our protagonist Miguel de Cervantes -- poet, playwright, actor and tax collector -- has been thrown into the slammer for foreclosing on a church that failed to pay its taxes.  A Catholic church.  Not the best move during the Inquisition.  Upon arrival, the other prisoners inform Cervantes and his attendant that before he faces the Inquisition, he must face a mock trial by his fellow inmates.  If they find him guilty, they get all of his belongings.  In an effort to save his stuff, most importantly his cherished manuscript, he agrees and offers as his defense, a play.  The prisoners agree -- I mean, who cold turn down a little entertainment when you're awaiting the Inquisition -- and with them joining in, the play within the play begins.

Cervantes transforms into Alonso Quijana, a retired gentleman who’s maybe been reading a few too many books about chivalry and imagines himself a knight-errant, Don Quixote de La Mancha.  He and his loyal servant Sancho set out to right wrongs, fight evil and "... add some measure of grace to the world".  Along the way however, he mistakes a windmill for a giant, a roadside inn for a castle, Aldonza, a feisty bar hooker for his true love, Dulcinea, and a traveling barber's shaving basin for the Golden Helmet of Mambrino, which Don Quixote believes will make him invulnerable.  Quixote can celebrate a couple of victories during his quest: he wins a token of love -- an old rag that he believes to be a silken scarf -- from "Dulcinea", a triumph (with help) in a huge brawl he instigates when he sees Aldonza/Dulcinea being mistreated, and he talks the innkeeper... that is, the Lord of the castle, into officially dubbing him a knight.  For all his efforts though, he's usually seen as a foolish old crackpot.  His family is embarrassed by him, he's humored and laughed at, and often considered kind of pathetic.  But at one point, the Padre says of him, "There is either the maddest wise man or the wisest mad man in the world".  Quixote's constant devotion to his ideals is expressed in the show's most popular song, "The Impossible Dream". 

Is it mad to hold on to your ideals, no matter how ridiculous they may seem to others?  For me, that was the bottom line of the whole story.  Don Quixote says that, "Facts are the enemy of the truth".  Even though his view of the facts can be off-target, Quixote's truths are noble.  They strike a chord with not only the other characters, but the audience as well because they give us a glimpse of an idealized world where we could all be courageous enough to "follow that star".  Aldonza for example, used to constant abuse, is at first irritated with him and his insistence that she is a lady of nobility, virtue and beauty.  She eventually sees herself as he sees her and is better for it, if only temporarily.  At the end of the play, the other prisoners are also touched by Cervante's tale, find him not guilty, return his manuscript, and sing "The Impossible Dream" as he's called to face the trial of the Inquisition.

Joneal Joplin
Photo from late July rehearsals, courtesy Dawn Majors
Joneal Joplin made an endearing and sincere Cervantes/Don Quixote and Christopher Hickey provides a nice bit of comic relief as Sancho.  Julie O'Neill made a lusty Aldonza and Laura Ernst as Alonso Quijana's niece, Elise La Barge as his housekeeper and Conor Dagenfield as the Padre had great voices.  The whole cast was strong and sounded solid together.  They had a nice little 9 piece orchestra but at times it tended to drown out the dialogue a bit.  Amy thought the action was a little static at times, but the couple sitting next to us more than made up for that.  So, you can have your hands all over each other, but not applaud after the big number?  Nice.

Check out the St. Louis Theatre Calendar and go see a show!  Lots of good stuff coming up in September.

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