There’s a thin threshold between imagination and insanity, one defined only by level of commitment. To imagine is to escape reality temporarily, with the promise of returning before long. To go insane is to give oneself over to imagination fully and wholeheartedly.
MAN OF LA MANCHA straddles this narrow threshold. Its greatness is its demand that we find space on that divide as well, daring us to imagine that Don Quixote might not be so insane after all.
A staple from high school to Broadway, MAN OF LA MANCHA is now receiving a surefooted revival at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Director Bonnie Monte and a talented cast are seizing the show’s opportunities for vivid individual performances and dazzling songs. With an attractive and nimble set by Michael Schweikardt and lovely musical direction by Doug Oberhamer, grand numbers like “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” are performed with vigor while more delicate songs like “I’m (We’re) Only Thinking of Him” receive more nuanced performances and stagings. The production regularly delights, while nonetheless struggling to find unity among its characters or connection with its audience.
Dale Wasserman’s story of MAN OF LA MANCHA unites the identities of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and his greatest creation, Don Quixote, a would-be knight whose commitment to chivalry and high adventure is as out of place in his world as it would be in ours. The show opens in a sixteenth-century Spanish prison, as a band of cutthroats, pickpockets, and prostitutes put the character of Cervantes on trial for all his processions—including a certain manuscript, implied to be the beginnings of DON QUIXOTE.
Formally charged “with being an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man” Cervantes mounts his defense by performing the story of Don Quixote. Taking on the title role himself and casting prisoners in the others, Cervantes shows his accusers and us the story of a modest old man who, fed up with the mundane world, “lays down the melancholy burden of sanity” and reinvents himself as Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant to fight ogres and warlords in the name of chivalry and virtue. Of course nobody beyond his one trusty follower joins the charade, and the tension of Quixote’s story builds as the people in his world grow less tolerant of his games. Simultaneously, however, the prisoners in Cervantes’s world grow gradually more understanding of poetry, art, and purpose.
MAN OF LA MANCHA, then, is a charade within a play within a play, constantly undermining and troubling any seemingly easy binaries like reality versus dreams, truth versus falseness, and imagination versus insanity. Don Quixote dares us to believe that a crazy man may be the one closest to making sense of the world.
With a second act stronger than its first, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s MAN OF LA MANCHA offers a beautiful and skillful veneer whose seriousness nonetheless prevents it from reaching deeply enough to access the show’s heart. Monte and lead actor William Michals craft a Cervantes/Quixote that is every bit the grandiloquent artist that stands in stark relief to the grimy prisoners and motley peasants he encounters. Michals’s carriage and articulation capture the nature of a lifelong theater artist that defines Cervantes, and of a dreamer fully enchanted by the pomp and virtue of knighthood that defines Quixote. Both are boldly underscored by Michals’s commanding baritone. When he announces himself as “I, Don Quixote” with a window-rattling power it is as though an actual knight has just kicked in the door to demand our attention. Michals gives this Quixote an immediate dignity and a commanding presence.
The power and dignity of Michals’s performance, however, undercuts the nuance of the character and the show. Quixote’s arrival at a roadside inn populated by thieves and prostitutes is our first opportunity to see Quixote’s frailness, and to start testing the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Yet, this production’s straight-faced presentation of Quixote seems always to put us on the side of the harsh realists. By placing Quixote at such lofty heights of solemnity, the show distances him even from the audience, denying us the opportunity to join him in his quest. Without clear cracks in the armor we have no access to the character’s heart, and this Quixote seems too proud of a knight to show those cracks.
A similar dynamic defines much of this MAN OF LA MANCHA: commendable individual performances without much connection between the roles. Jane Pfitsch’s Aldonza bears well her bitterness and alienation, but never seems to justify her growing fascination with Quixote, and Blake Pfeil is charming as Sancho Panza, but allows a rich character to get lost regularly in the ensemble.
All of the high seriousness that works against the human connection of the first act repurposes itself as the invigorating force of the second act. There, when Quixote’s fantasies and sanity are called most directly into question, a stalwart commitment to “Dream the Impossible Dream” in the face of any demand for mundane human interaction powerfully challenges the hegemony of sanity, reality, and truth. Surely, if one act of a show is going to be better than the other, the preferred choice is act two, and this production admirably finishes on its high note.
For its first musical in some time, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has chosen a time-tested favorite and given it the showpiece treatment. This MAN OF LA MANCHA may be short on personality, never fully investigating how the human life might test the limits of imagination’s threshold, but the production remains a skillful and often fun presentation of imagination, insanity, and rigid reality meeting at loggerheads.
MAN OF LA MANCHA
Book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte
October 17 – November 18, 2012
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Avenue
Madison NJ, 07940