Man of La Mancha Delivers Campy Musical Romp

Alice McAdams, Managing Editor

Dale Wasserman’s Man of La Mancha, which opened in Hall Auditorium last weekend under the direction of Associate Professor of Theater Chris Flaharty, is a thrilling, swashbuckling musical version of Miguel de Cervantes’s classic satirical novel El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. The show is often cheesy, yet it hints at darker themes, switching seamlessly between scenes of crude muleteers pounding their fists for more wine and of prisoners awaiting a deadly fate in an eerie dungeon.

The musical is set at the time of the novel’s publication between 1605 and 1615: In the opening scene, Cervantes (Associate Professor of Theater Matthew Wright) and his manservant (College senior Phil Wong) are thrown into an Inquisition prison for the crime of offending the church. To stop his savage fellow captives from burning a precious manuscript, Cervantes enacts a play, intended as a defense in his trial before the prison crowd. Throughout Man of La Mancha, the action periodically transitions between the content of Cervantes’s play — a version of Don Quixote, in which an old literature-loving gentleman imagines himself as a knight and galavants around the countryside defending chivalry — and the events of the prison cell.

The program notes that Man of La Mancha is not intended as an adaptation of Don Quixote; rather, it is “a play all about imagination.” So it is, and for that reason it’s fruitless to chastise the play too harshly for its departure from the novel. (Nor is it necessary to spend much time berating Wasserman and Flaherty for their misunderstanding of Cervantes; suffice it to say that the characterization of the author as a “constant optimist” is a fairly hilarious misrepresentation of the cynical, jealous man Cervantes is known to have been.) Man of La Mancha selects one of the many themes present in Cervantes’s work — dreaming — and unabashedly ignores much of the other material offered by the novel.

Although Man of La Mancha may not be an adaptation of Don Quixote, it can, and should, be considered as Wasserman’s interpretation of the novel’s title character. Understandings of the brave knight and his treatment by the world have always ranged wildly from reader to reader, including those who view Don Quixote as pure farce and those who view it as a twisted encyclopedia of torture, and in Man of La Mancha we are seeing one reader’s relationship to Cervantes’s protagonist.

Don Quixote in the play is a gentle, senile romantic. He challenges windmills, bows to a man he thinks is the lord of a castle, and, above all, devotes himself to the hardened serving wench Aldonza (College sophomore Katie Spurgin), whom he sees only as the princess Dulcinea. He is naïve and easily taken in, a flaw he pays for when he and his squire Sancho (Wong, who lent a surprising dignity to the normally buffoonish character) are robbed for all they own by a gang of gypsies. Wasserman’s Quixote lacks much of the original knight’s less cheery elements: haughtiness, a violent temper, a propensity to insult Sancho.

This unwise protagonist is exploited even by his closest friends and family. Don Quixote’s niece Antonia (College senior Jessica Futran) and housekeeper (College sophomore Julia Melfi) sing “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” a song that belies the women’s true selfishness in wanting to keep Don Quixote at home to preserve their own images. They are later joined by Sansón Carrasco (played with excellent coldness by College junior Alexander Bianchi), a scholar and Antonia’s fiancée, who will masquerade as another knight to defeat Don Quixote and shame him into returning home.

The emphasis on the ulterior motives of the knight’s loved ones is one of Wasserman’s more baffling choices, as it discards the complexity of their true reasons for balking at his knightly dreams. In the novel, it is clear that his friends are thinking of him, and that their desire to keep him safe in his bed falls somewhere between the very real possibility that he will be killed as a knight and the vague conviction that a life of fantasy is uncouth. The attitude of Don Quixote’s neighbors that dreaming is unhealthy seems to be a relevant element of the original that Wasserman would have done well to represent faithfully.

Yet despite its oversimplification of Cervantes’s novel, Man of La Mancha succeeds heartily as a musical. It is earnest, exciting and fun, and Flaharty’s production was an example of the show at its best. Arena-style seating on Hall’s stage did particular service to the prison scenes, as it drew the viewer into the languid, cloistered atmosphere of the dungeon. Consistent lighting changes between the play and the prison made for a seamless transition between the two settings, helping maintain the continuity between the multiple characters played by each actor.

The casting of Wright as the dual character of Cervantes and Don Quixote is laudable. Not only was Wright’s interpretation of the two roles flawless — a scholarly, slightly flamboyant Cervantes, a heartbreakingly innocent Quixote — but the juxtaposition of a middle-aged Quixote with a younger cast also aided the production significantly. The knight’s age is an essential element of his character, both in emphasizing his vulnerability and in maintaining a distance between his own old-fashioned elegance and the crassness of the other characters.

In particular, it is vital that Don Quixote be impossibly too old and withered for Aldonza, that she love him as someone who inspires her to believe but never as a romantic interest. For, as was well developed in Flaharty’s production, Don Quixote’s interest in her is actually entirely unromantic, since he knows nothing about her as a person. Aldonza repeatedly implores the knight to “look at me,” to see her for the uncultured peasant girl she is, but he refuses to see anything but the princess of his imagination.

Aldonza/Dulcinea is almost totally an invention of Wasserman’s script — in the novel, she exists only in the imaginations of other characters, and the reader knows her no more as a peasant girl than as a princess. In Man of La Mancha, she is a scrappy, back-talking prostitute, too hardened by her mistreatment by the inn’s guests to understand Don Quixote’s bald romanticism. Spurgin gave a convincing performance as the bellicose Aldonza transformed into a true believer of the knight’s idealistic gospel.

The single drawback of the arena seating was that several of the actors failed to compensate for the lack of microphones, and many songs were diminished as a result. Spurgin’s soprano often felt timid, though College sophomore Arif Silverman, who played a small but memorable role as the kindly priest, was among the few whose voices projected into the top rows. The musical numbers were also aided by smart choreography, including a wonderful bit of slapstick in which Aldonza was tilted off a table into a muleteer’s arms and thrown over his shoulder to be carried offstage.

The ideal production of Man of La Mancha accepts the play for what it is: a spectacle of over-the-top ideals and happy endings, subtly darkened by the backdrop of the Inquisition only in the service of adding thrill and fear to the musical. Flaharty’s version did just that, utilizing a splendid cast, just-right costumes and a flawless off-stage orchestra all to the play’s advantage.