“Too much sanity is madness!” This counterintuitive declaration is made by Don Quixote, the iconic lead character in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Man of La Mancha. Portrayed by the ultra-talented Australian actor Anthony Warlow, Quixote is the alter-ego and imaginative creation of 17th century author Miguel de Cervantes. With music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion, and book by Dale Wasserman, Man of La Mancha is formatted as a ‘play within a play within a musical.”
The story opens in a prison in Seville, Spain in 1594 where Don Miguel de Cervantes has been incarcerated as an enemy of the Catholic church and ordered to appear before the Spanish Inquisition. The character Cervantes is a tax collector who issued a lien against a Catholic monastery for non-payment of taxes (the reason for his imprisonment), but his true calling is that of a playwright and actor. A trunk containing theatrical make-up makes up the majority of his personal possessions, along with a manuscript of a play he has written.
His fellow prisoners are thieves, murderers, and victims of the Inquisition. They are desperate and violent and terrified and want to burn the manuscript. Cervantes tries to prevent the loss of his manuscript by convincing the other inmates to help him act out the play, which chronicles the adventures and misadventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha. Cervantes plays the role of Quixote and invites the other prisoners to enter into his often humorous imagination and thereby distract themselves from their own fears about their ultimate fate.
Throughout the ‘play within a play,’ the prisoners assume a variety of roles in a series of recurring locations—a windmill on the road, a castle, and a tavern populated with vulgar and dangerous riffraff, not the least of whom is a cynical and sassy scullery maid of ill repute. The character Don Quixote is an elderly country gentleman who believes he is a brave and chivalrous knight-errant who destroys monsters and rescues damsels in distress.
Anthony Warlow’s skillfully layered portrayal of Cervantes and Quixote is nothing short of spectacular. He brings to life the scattered, self-deluded psychology of Quixote, and his impressive vocal range and dynamics provide a thrilling and defiant rendition of the title song which introduces “Don Quixote” to the audience. Warlow soars in the heart-rending ode to his fantasy lover, “Dulcinea” and he truly brings the house down when he sings the classic ballad, “The Impossible Dream.’
The role of Cervantes’/Quixote’s servant, Sancho, is played to comic perfection by the incomparable Nehal Joshi. Joshi shows himself to be a wonderful singer, dancer, athlete, and comedian who steals the show as a pragmatic and hilarious foil for Quixote. When he sang the satirical “I Really Like Him” and “The Missive,” we laughed so hard we could scarcely breathe.
When Quixote and Sancho arrive at the tavern, they meet the vulgar and dirty scullery maid, Aldonza, beautifully portrayed by the glorious Amber Iman. Aldonza is primarily a selfish, venal character, but Iman finds nuances of sweetness and sadness in her personality. Iman studies the sarcastic side of Aldonza when she sings an anthem to prostitution, “It’s All the Same” and by contrast, sings a lovely ballad, “What Does He Want of Me?”
The featured players and the ensemble do an outstanding job as well. Rayanne Gonzales as the housekeeper, Maria Failla as Antonia, and Martin Sola as the Padre are wonderful when they present “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” The ensemble shines with beautiful harmonies and rhythmic Flamenco dancing in the production number, “Little Bird, Little Bird.” Kudos to Choreographer Marcos Santana!
Skillfully led by Music Director George Fulginiti-Shakar, the 12-piece orchestra essays a challenging repertoire that runs the gamut from subtle to triumphant, sometimes with only a guitar. Costume Designer Ann Hould-Ward provides appropriately tattered wardrobe for the prison scenes and delightfully colorful costumes for the fantasy scenes.
An incredibly effective set design is provided by Allen Moyer, who uses metal lattice work for the walls of the prison with numerous ladders and two catwalks. There is also a metal staircase which ominously drops down to the stage whenever the prison guards come to bring one of the inmates to testify before the Inquisition. By contrast, modest, everyday items such as a wine cask, a small and a large bench, and a string mop are used to make a horse for Don Quixote in riotous fashion.
Under the clever and artistic direction of Alan Paul, Man of La Mancha provides a wonderful story which is poignantly sad and humorous all at the same time. There is beautiful music and stellar performances by a talented cast. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Man of La Mancha is not to be missed!
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with no intermission.
Man of La Mancha plays through April 26, 2015 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall – 610 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or purchase them online.