Man of La Mancha
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
A Noise Within
Through May 21
Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, a story about a man who famously tilts at windmills, over 400 years ago. Three hundred and fifty odd years later, Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh wrote Man of La Mancha, a musical imagining of Cervantes and his fictional knight. Now, A Noise Within tries to bring the story into the present.
Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott literally sets a bleak stage before the show begins — a space devoid of color, nearly empty, with only ominous creaks and clanks (courtesy of sound designer Martín Carrillo) to fill the void. As the show comes to life, we meet Cervantes himself (Geoff Elliott), a new prisoner. While waiting for his judgement, Cervantes recounts to his fellow inmates the play within the play — the story he’s been writing about Don Quixote. He steps into the role of Quixote, while his friend (Kasey Mahaffey) plays Quixote’s loyal squire, Sancho Panza. Quixote—who’s really Alonso Quijana, no knight — doesn’t see life at it is, but as he thinks it should be, with villains who can be slain, pure and kind maidens, and disagreements that can be resolved with chivalry. Of course, the villains are really a windmill and Quijana’s future son-in-law (Michael Uribes), while the maiden (Cassandra Marie Murphy) is a sexually active kitchen worker. Fights are more often settled with blows than words.
There’s something beautiful about the way Quijana sees the world through Quixote’s eyes. He is, as Oscar Hammerstein described Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, a cockeyed optimist. That Quixote can be so naïve despite the harsh realities he encounters is fascinating. It is also perhaps his coping mechanism.
Those nuances are mostly lost under Rodriguez-Elliott’s direction, however. The show’s biggest problem is that the tone never quite gels — the book’s comedic bits aren’t as funny as they’re intended to be, while the dramatic moments feel either overwrought or underplayed to the point of being non-existent. Much of this is due to contextualization — Man of La Mancha was written in an era when it was considered acceptable to laugh at crazy characters, but modern audiences are (hopefully) aware that ridiculing neuro-atypical characters is punching down, comedically, instead of punching up. It doesn’t help matters that Rodriguez-Elliott has set the show in a contemporary prison, and peppered it with visual imagery that elicits impressions of Abu Ghraib. It’s difficult to laugh amidst such evocative tableaus.
There’s also the issue of performance. Elliott is a strong actor with text, and a capable singer, but he seems to go blank, acting-wise, when his characters sing. It’s jarring, and detracts from the show. In general, it’s clear that Elliott is making plenty of choices (he conspicuously blinks often), but it’s not clear why he’s making those choices, or how they serve the Quixote character. Meanwhile, Murphy’s take on Aldonza/Dulcinea works when she’s singing, but feels unnatural in Aldonza’s darker dramatic moments. Murphy, who sings like an Andrew Lloyd Webber protagonist, is a classic ingénue, but she doesn’t ring true as Aldonza, who’s rougher around the edges than most ingénues. That dynamic holds true for the rest of the ensemble — though their makeup makes them look grungy, they feel too squeaky-clean to be playing hardened criminals. This works in their favor when the story is lives in Quixote’s world, where everyone is more a trope than a person, but it hampers the believability of Quijona and Cervantes’ grittier worlds.
It’s a shame that the production doesn’t work as well as it wants to. In today’s political climate, escaping into a world viewed through rose-colored glasses grows more appealing daily. But this bleak staging of Man of La Mancha belies the show’s underlying optimism, and instead hammers home life’s disillusioning reality.
A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena, playing in repertory through May 21; anoisewithin.org. Running time: one hour and 50 minute with no intermission.