If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably never heard of Cervantes. Or you know him only as the creator of Don Quixote, a book you last picked up in high school.
But don’t let that deter you from seeing Cervantes: The Last Quixote, the bombastic new play that is having its world premiere at GALA Hispanic Theatre this month.
The play is based on the fact that few people know anything about Cervantes, whose death—400 years ago at the age of 69—marks the beginning of this fictional tribute to the author.
In this re-telling, Cervantes—played with alternating gusto, rage and sorrow by Ṓscar de la Fuente—assumes the role of the much-loved Man from La Mancha.
His sidekick is Martin, a bumbling bookseller’s assistant who drinks too much. Played by Samy Khlalil, he is the counterpart of Sancho Panza, the comic servant who leads his master on a mad pursuit across Spain, in search of the villain who plagiarized Cervantes’ work and thus stole his masterpiece and name. Khalil is wonderfully funny.
Eugenio Villota is Lope de Vega, the successful playwrite who is Cervantes’ nemesis. A former circus performer, he brings an almost acrobatic grace to some of the fight scenes.
All three of these fine actors—stars of stage, television and film in Spain—have been imported by GALA as part of its annual joint production with the Spanish Government’s office of cultural affairs, Accion Cultural Espanola.
Other leading lights of Spanish theatre are Cervantes’ Playwright Jordi Casanovas, whose work is currently on view at theatres around the world, and the play’s director, José Luis Arellano, whose staging of Yerma at GALA last season won a 2016 Helen Hayes Award.
The extraordinary Luz Nicolás, who is originally from Spain but is now a member of the GALA company, plays several roles, including that of Catalina, Cervantes’ proud but long-suffering wife. Last seen at GALA in Señorita y Madame: The Secret War of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, Nicolás is particularly remembered for her vivid performance in Yerma.
Another Spanish native, now living in New York, is Soraya Padrao. She plays the role of Cervantes’ mistress with gleeful abandon before playing her opposite, the servant Isabel.
Eric Robledo and Erick Sotomayor, both originally from Mexico, and José Antonio González, born in Cuba, round out this excellent cast.
Although the story begins with the death of Cervantes, it quickly switches to flashback, as Martin, the drunken companion, tells about the events of his hero’s life.
After service in the army and capture as a prisoner of war, Cervantes returns to Spain where he writes countless plays that are not produced. Finally—at the age of 58—he writes Don Quixote. Based on his own life, the book, considered the world’s first modern novel, is a huge success. But the author refuses to write the long-promised sequel, known as Part II.
It is not until eight years later, when a book purporting to be his is published, that Cervantes is jolted into action. The fake Don Quixote quickly becomes a best-seller, but it is such a put-down of the original that it threatens to destroy Cervantes’ reputation as the “Shakespeare of Spain.”
The question, then, is ‘Who did it?’ And why would anyone want to frame our hero?
The answers come in Act II, when the two friends embark on their search for the author of the fake Quixote.
The eight performers, five of whom play multiple roles, move back and forth through time, occupying a single set that is, by turns, a Moorish prison, a battleground, a tavern full of rowdy actors, the proper home of the playwright himself and various meeting places along the way.
Designed by Silvia de Marta, another Spanish import and fellow winner of a 2016 Helen Hayes Award for last season’s Yerma, the set consists of a façade with three doors and a couple of tables. Lighting and stage management allow its transformation into dozens of other worlds.
Lighting Designer Christopher Annas-Lee—also winner of a 2016 Helen Hayes Award for Yerma—dispenses clouds of smoke and shadow, creating the illusion of battlefields and inns.
De Marta also designed the costumes, which range from prim to sluttish for the women and ducal or serf-like for the men. The nobles—except for Cervantes himself—wear pleated ruffs, while the bit players are dressed in white shirts. At times, they coalesce into a Greek chorus.
In the hands of Stage Manager Nelly Díaz-Rodríguez and Production Manager Lena Salins, the wooden tables of the tavern are turned into cages and hiding places. There are fight scenes and wonderfully sexy animations, as men variously morph into animals or walls.
In a particularly poignant touch, pages of manuscripts are strewn across the set as play after play by Cervantes is turned down in favor of his increasingly popular rival. Alicia Tessari is the Prop Designer who uses torn pages as symbols of loss and tin utensils and bowls to simulate armor.
Composer Mariano Vales provides the incidental music for Quixote. Originally from Argentina, Vales wrote both the music and lyrics for Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires, (nominated for a 2016 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Musical.) His next musical will have its premiere at GALA in 2017.
Alvaro Luna is the projection designer who created the dates and scenes that appear as video images on the set, and April Kelli Sturdivant is the resident sound engineer at GALA.
As a play, Cervantes: The Last Quixote is as much a puzzle as the one it sets out to solve. Act II is far better than Act I, which—as performed on opening night—sometimes resembled a tower of rage and unmitigated confusion. This is particularly true of the fight scenes, where there is so much shouting—often by two or three actors at once—that it is difficult to make sense of what is happening.
Part of the problem is the design of the subtitles displayed just above the stage. For the non-Spanish speakers in the audience—of whom there were many on opening night—the absence of any indication of which characters were speaking made it impossible to follow all the charges and counter-charges between Cervantes, Lopo, and their followers.
Fortunately, these problems are easily resolved. And Act II, in which the adventures of this unlucky knight and his comic disciple unfold, is perfect.
My advice to readers of DCMetroTheateArts? See Cervantes, by all means, but persevere.
Running Time: Two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.
Cervantes: The Last Quixote plays through October 2, 2016 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online. Here are directions.
Note: Cervantes: The Last Quixote is performed in Spanish with English surtitles.