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Crazy Old Man: The Rep’s powerful “Man of La Mancha”

by Jeff Grygny

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo by Michael Brosilow

If some retired attorney suddenly thought he was a superhero and went out to fight crime dressed like Batman, we’d recommend him for medication. That’s exactly how it is with Man of La Mancha’s Don Quixote, the elderly landowner who decides to be knight-errant. But the 1964 musical makes the old lunatic something more: a stand-in for all our noblest (if unrealistic) ideals, trammeled in the muck of everyday life, yet steadfast to a fault. As delivered by Milwaukee Repertory Theater under Mark Clements’ skillful direction, this Tony-winning Broadway warhorse achieves its full emotional power. This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent voice of Nathaniel Stampley in the title role, as well as music director Dan Kazemi’s passionate interpretation of Mitch Leigh’s rousing score, which blends brassy bombast with the fiery touch of flamenco guitars. The result is tremendously moving; if your eyes don’t tear up a few times during the show you probably also hate Christmas and puppies.

Dale Wasserman’s book is loosely based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes —loosely, as in: it completely inverts Cervantes ruthless send-up of the chivalric romances that were as popular in his time as superheroes are today. In Don Quixote, Cervantes comes off as something like a 17th Century Lars Von Trier: snidely puncturing chivalric pretensions, there’s no quotidian grime he won’t wallow in. The Don Quixote of the novel usually brings chaos in pursuit of his ill-conceived quest, and if he doesn’t end up getting thrashed, his dim sidekick Pancho usually does. In sharp contrast, Wasserman’s book elevates exactly the romantic view that Cervantes scorned. This 60’s era tribute to a misguided battle against evil is especially ironic when you recall that the same year Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway, the United States sent troops into Vietnam for the first time. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is a textbook illustration of “quixotic” —and not in a good way. Even those who passionately battle for social justice are not immune to tilting at windmills. In short, this is a play for anyone with a heightened sense of mission, both as an inspiration and as a warning.

Director Clements keeps the show rolling through moments of high spirits, low comedy, grim anticlimax, and finally a kind of lofty tragedy. The show is set in a Spanish prison where Cervantes is held due to some bureaucratic offense against the Church. Handily, he happens to have a trunk full of theatrical gear, and to save his precious manuscript from the prison latrine, he enlists his cellmates into an impromptu telling of Don Quixote. This works beautifully on Jack Magaw’s monumental prison set, taking on magical atmospheres under Jason Fassl’s ingenious lighting design. Cervantes’ manservant, acting as stage manager, hands out costumes and props, instructing prisoners how to pantomime horses and such, and the story takes off. The sturdy actors throw themselves into clever double characterizations; we see them as prisoners taking roles in Cervantes’s drama—whether willingly, delightedly or grudgingly—then gradually inhabiting their parts as both we and they become absorbed in the tale.

Alvin Crawford brings warmth and humor to the prison boss who accepts the part of a sympathetic innkeeper; Michael Accardo and Michael J. Farrina deliver sparking comic performances as a traveling barber and Quixote’s hapless squire Sancho. As a kindly priest, Jonathan Gillard Daly adds a certain madness of his own, and when he sings De profundis clamo ad te —from the depths I cry to you, Lord—we get a fleeting sense of the show’s existential heart. Matt Daniels as an adversarial nobleman delivers a worthy, if nasty, voice of reason. And if Stampley seems a bit too hearty to represent the emaciated “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” he brings indispensible authority and commitment; his manic grin when Quixote is knighted is the stunned expression of a man whose dream has finally come true. The role of the tavern whore Aldonza, whom Quixote takes for his ideal lady Dulcinea, is played by Leenya Rideout with uncommon subtlety: we see both a nameless prisoner and the pitiful woman she is enlisted to play gradually allowing herself to take strength from Quixote’s kindness, even though his devotion is delusional. And after the curtain call, fully half of the actors whip out guitars for a delightfully energetic reprise of the title song.

Sure, the lyrics can be a bit hokey and middle of the road. But Man of La Mancha seriously engages Cervantes’ complex play between literature and reality, and the role of poetry in a prosaic world. It gives solace by honoring a vision of goodness, even in the face of disheartening truths. It offers the aged precious dignity, even when failing body and mind puts them into humiliating circumstances. And it tips an ironic hat to the artists, who keep on offering inspiration to a world that often seems to want everything but.

Knight-errantry might be more about ourselves than the people we’re supposedly helping; there’s a murky zone between high ideals and mere grandiosity. Yet even knowing this, there’s  something about Don Quixote that moves us deeply and gives us heart—and that’s probably for the best.

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents
Man of La Mancha
book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Rich Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion

playing through October 30