“Don Quixote” is doubtless the strangest book I have ever read, and yet it is somehow the one that makes the most sense. It is unequivocally a story filled with humor and joy, and it is also packed with cruelty and anguish. It is a novel I found fabulously easy to consume, and yet I still do not understand it. I’m not sure I ever will.
On Wednesday night, I had the privilege of seeing “Man of La Mancha,” Nina Goodheart ’19’s senior project in theater studies. Originally written by Dale Wasserman in 1965, the musical has been performed on Broadway four times. While not an accurate representation of either the life of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of “Don Quixote,” nor of “Don Quixote” itself, the musical draws elements from both to create an unparalleled combination of comedy and tragedy.
The musical begins with Don Miguel de Cervantes (Gilberto Saenz ’19) and his manservant (Oliver Shoulson ’20) being thrown into a dungeon by officers of the Spanish Inquisition to await trial for foreclosing on a monastery. The other prisoners attack them in an attempt to steal their belongings, but Cervantes is given an opportunity to defend himself in the form of a mock trial. Cervantes subsequently chooses to perform a charade, in which he tells the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha along with his fellow inmates. Saenz’s Cervantes, of course, plays the title part. Throughout the musical — most of which consists of this charade — Quixote, his sidekick Sancho Panza, also played by Shoulson, and Quixote’s lady Aldonza (Alaina Anderson ’21) get up to various misadventures, as Sancho so aptly calls them.
Goodheart’s production of “Man of La Mancha” ensnares the audience from the very beginning. Seated around a small stage, both Cervantes’ convict counterparts and the actual audience sit enraptured, as the story of Don Quixote unravels before them. Sitting in the audience, one feels as though they are as much a part of the action as Quixote himself — as if, just like Cervantes’ compatriots, they could be called up at any second to perform a role in his act.
This immersion is made easy by the fantastic work of the Lighting Designer Emma Levine ’20, as well as the Prop and Set Director Adam Lessing ’19 and Costume Designer Kira Daniels ’22. It’s difficult to have to grapple with the logistics of putting on a musical while at the same time reminding the audience that this musical is taking place in a dungeon. However, the transitions between the two settings are seamless; each item and piece of clothing seems to fit exactly where they should. Levine’s lightwork is particularly impressive, capturing changes in emotion naturally, bringing audience members smoothly from one scene to the next.
All of these elements are brought together through the amazing work of Shoulson and Anderson, who capture the essence of their respective characters flawlessly. Shoulson’s bumbling yet jolly Sancho is a sight to behold, providing welcome comic relief from the darker moments of the show. His song “I Like Him” is not only amusing to watch, but also perfectly captures the emotions of the audience towards Don Quixote. Shoulson plays Sancho as a foil to Quixote — unlike Quixote, who is a fool without being aware he is one, Shoulson’s Sancho owns his buffoonery, and displays it for the audience with pride. While Sancho leaves the audience laughing, Anderson’s Aldonza conveys true human emotion, whether it be confusion, love or anger. Her rendition of “Aldonza,” paired with the choreography of Gabrielle Niederhoffer ’22, leaves one feeling that she is perhaps the truest character in the whole show.
Saenz dives so far into his role that one almost forgets he is an actor playing Cervantes and not Cervantes himself, who, of course, is playing Don Quixote. At the end of the show, the Governor (Liam Elkind ’21) remarks that he believes that Don Miguel is like a brother to Don Quixote. Saenz, too, is like a sibling to the pair. He perfectly captures not only the outward, clownlike appearance of Quixote, but also his underlying earnestness and, beneath even that, the emotions of Cervantes himself. Saenz’s Quixote captures not only the mind of the audience, but also his fellow captives as well, drawing them out of their stupor and creating a whole new world for them, even if it is only in their heads.
I am still not sure that I understand “Don Quixote,” and I think that is the way that Cervantes would have liked it. But it is undoubtedly true that Saenz’s Quixote shows us that, in the end, we are the true masters of how we perceive the world. As the knight says, “Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.” I see myself in Don Quixote. Don’t you?
“Man of La Mancha” runs at the Whitney Theater on Wall Street this Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Jake Kalodner | firstname.lastname@example.org .