With his unique staging of Man of La Mancha, director Nick Bowling appears to be on a quest of his own—whether that quest ends honorably or deteriorates into a fool’s errand is up to the individual theatergoer.
Be aware that my reactions were distinctly out of sync with many in the audience, a majority of whom rushed to their feet during the standing ovation. Other theatergoers on the way out gushed about this new interpretation of a beloved classic. Bowling appears to have created a crowd pleaser.
Bowling explained in an interview in The Daily Herald that he hoped to address certain elements associated with traditional stagings of the show. The plot begins with Miguel de Cervantes (Nathaniel Stampley) and a servant being planted into a holding cell to await a trial from the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners in the holding cell rob Cervantes and threaten to burn his papers, but Cervantes begs them to allow him a defense that includes using the prisoners as actors to perform Don Quixote, then an unfinished draft.
Usually, Man of La Mancha includes a distinct separation between the action in the cell and the story of Don Quixote trying to spread virtue at an inn of ill repute. Bowling blurs this line. He questions whether actors should enter and exit scenes—after all, prisoners could not leave the cell, so allowing actors to exit the stage destroys the realism of the setting. He notes that the suspension of disbelief relies on Cervantes maintaining the interest of the ruffians in the cell. Cervantes would not have stopped his story, so the intermission needs to go. And those props that the actors usually use—swords, armor, a gold-colored shaving basin, fake eyebrows for the lead to make him look older and more insane when he transforms from Cervantes into Don Quixote. Well, in the prison cell the prisoners-turned-actors would not have such tools, so this production has the actors improvise with more accessible items (umbrellas, a walker, a bottle of pills).
All of these changes are intriguing, but they are ultimately a misstep that overemphasizes the framing device of Cervantes in the cell while deemphasizing the more central plot of Don Quixote attacking windmills and pursing his love Dulcinea (Danni Smith). In Bowling’s production, one cannot even consider the actors to be playing dual roles. Instead, they are always the “thieves and murders,” nodding to each other and clowning a bit as they enjoy the diversion of participating in a play.
Dale Wasserman’s 1964 script is so well written that he captures the best of the extensive novel in a very concise play-within-a-play, helped immensely by the “The Impossible Dream,” which condenses Don Quixote’s lofty goals into a three-minute showstopper. For Don Quixote, chivalry is judged by the means rather than the ends. He will “fly, when [his] arms are too weary.” He will “reach, the unreachable star.” Sadly, Bowling’s interpretation—despite the best of intentions—robs Don Quixote of the dignity so expertly endowed upon him in Wasserman’s script. By never allowing the audience to leave the confines of the prison cell, never transporting the audience to the vast countryside, never showing the audience Don Quixote with his sword raised in defiance of feudal injustice… Bowling never invites his audience to see Don Quixote’s greatness. Instead, we are forced to see the character Cervantes riding a mop, wearing a tin bowl on his head, swinging an old cane as his weapon. Creative, but not inspiring.
Regarding the decision to keep all of the actors on stage at all times, Bowling hit a snag with the Marriott’s theater in the round. Since most of the actors are observing the action most of the time, they are relegated to lying down around the outer perimeter of the stage. They generally stay out of the audiences’ sightlines, but their consistent blocking of the center-stage action prompted a memory of a line from The Producers: “You’re looking at the man who invented Theater in the Square! Nobody had a good seat!”
In many respects, the strengths of Man of La Mancha can withstand any test. Stampley performed admirably while singing “The Impossible Dream” and “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote).” Richard Ruiz playing Sancho is fun while singing “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip,” while Smith projects pure rage in her rendition of “Aldonza.” My personal favorite performance came from long-time Chicago actor James Harms, who wows in expressing the importance of imagination and free thought through his performance of “To Each his Dulcinea.”
Theater is an art that requires exploration and experimentation. This production is an interesting and commendable experiment in modernizing a 50-year-old musical, and it is worthy of viewing. I just hope that most theatergoers leave remembering that Man of La Mancha at its best allows the fantasy of Don Quixote to transcend the realism of its bookending subplot. For future productions, let’s permit Don Quixote and his optimism to again shine above the more cynical reminders that our civilization has not progressed much in its battles against oppression and injustice.