Brains and borders have a lot in common in Quixote Nuevo, Round House Theatre’s first foray into live theater after 18 months of COVID shutdowns. Being told you don’t belong in your own mind or in your own country is enough to drive anyone to madness. Unless, as the old saying goes, madness is the sanest response to insane situations.
Dementia is ravaging the mind of retired Cervantes scholar Jose Quijano, and his family is preparing to move him to an assisted living facility.
Jose, however, has other plans.
Insisting that he is Don Quixote, Cervantes’ famous windmill-fighting literary hero, Jose runs away from his family on a self-appointed quest to find his long-lost love and right social injustices. That he does so in attire best described as junkyard chic, and on a tricycle sporting a horse skull (Quixote’s faithful steed Rocinante), perplexes everyone but him.
Jose is sure of his path. It is up to his family — and us audience members — to decide how far we will accompany him. When the alternative is growing old in a sterile old folks home, is running after adventure really so crazy? As Jose’s therapist observes, sometimes “tipping the world on its side makes sense of it.”
Quixote Nuevo, penned by esteemed Mexican American playwright Octavio Solis, tackles a lot of heady issues in its 150-minute run time: The stress of caring for someone with dementia, the inevitability of death, the dignity of being allowed to die on one’s own terms — even when those terms make sense to no one but you.
The play is at its best when focusing on the comedy that comes with Jose’s quest. Herbert Siguenza turns out a solid performance, inflecting the role of Jose with comedy, sincerity, and fragility. There are tender moments when Jose processes disappointments from his youth. And there are plenty of laughs as Jose marches through town, enmeshing unwitting bystanders in his fantasy.
But the real humor comes when Jose chooses traveling ice pop salesman Manny Diaz as his squire Sancho Panza. The character of Manny Diaz is the shining beacon of this show, and Ernie González Jr. plays Manny with brilliant deadpan comedy. Line after delicious line of Manny’s dialogue places him in the tradition of the comedic fool, whose simplicity hides wisdom and whose sincerity empowers his friend. “Maestro remembers everything,” Manny tells Jose’s family at the end of their quest. “Even things that never happened to him.”
Playwright Solis grew up in El Paso, on the U.S.–Mexico border, the son of Mexican immigrants. His childhood on the border informs Quixote Nuevo, transferring Cervantes’ saga to southern Texas and transforming Quixote into a hero who fights not windmills but surveillance drones and border guards. Jose’s lost love, we find out, is across the Rio Grande in Mexico, and the border wall gets taller by the day.
At times the play feels like it is trying too hard to educate rather than entertain, but maybe that is just a function of timing. Before COVID intervened, Round House was scheduled to produce Quixote Nuevo in the fall of 2020 when all eyes were on the U.S. presidential election. Some of the play’s political references feel decidedly from “the before times”; and even with frequent injections of comedy, the subject matter is markedly somber for an audience already coming off of 18 months of gloom. One senses that a good 30 minutes could be shaved from the show’s more didactic moments to achieve a tighter narrative.
But that is not to knock the Round House creative teams, who all contributed top-notch work. Director Lisa Portes taps into the ethos of the story. Scenic design by DC-area veteran Milagros Ponce de León features a rough-hewn adobe building that doubles as a border wall when tilted. Helen Huang’s costume and puppet designs punctuate the stage with pops of Mexican colors, dancing calacas (skeletons), and puppets that grow in splendor and significance as the story progresses.
Mexican culture has a beautiful relationship with death (Think Día de los Muertos or the Pixar movie Coco in which Playwright Solis voices a character). That relationship is embodied here in the personage of Papa Calaca, a spectral figure who follows Jose on his journey. Played with appropriate gravitas by Raúl Cardona, Papa Calaca infuses the show with sometimes sinister, sometimes playful song and dance, reminding us that death is never far away, but willing to wait. Uplighting by Lighting Designer Alberto Segarra adds to the mood while Composer David Molina imparts to the show a distinctly Tejano sound.
Spanish phrases are woven into the English dialogue. An understanding of the Spanish language may enhance your experience but isn’t really necessary to enjoy the play.
In the end, it is up to Jose’s family to decide how to deal with his dementia in a way that allows him to find peace. I left with a greater sensitivity to the tribulations of aging, reminded that when one is out of step with the place they call home — in their own mind or on their own land — the best that others can do is lend a supporting hand.
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Quixote Nuevo plays through October 3, 2021, at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda MD. Quixote Nuevo also streams on demand beginning September 23. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100 or go online.
Don Quixote/Jose Quijano: HERBERT SIGUENZA
Sancho Panza/Manny Diaz: ERNIE GONZÁLEZ JR.
Papa Calaca/Trucker/Vivaldo/Viedma/Cardenio: RAÚL CARDONA
Magdalena/Perla: ISABEL QUINTERO
Antonia/Inez Castillo: CARRANZA
Bruno Castillo/Terrified Boy/Yard Guy/Young Quijano: PETER PASCO
Padre Perez/Big Man with Belt/Border Patrolman: LAWRENCE REDMOND
Dr. Campos / Dulcinea: SARITA OCÓN
Rosario Castillo / Juana Diaz: ADELINA MITCHELL
Update September 23: Due to an unexpected injury in the cast, Assistant Director Dylan Arredondo will play Sancho Panza/Manny Dias for the remainder of the run.
Director: LISA PORTES
Scenic Designer: MILAGROS PONCE DE LEÓN
Costume and Puppet Designer: HELEN HUANG
Lighting Designer: ALBERTO SEGARRA
Composer and Sound Designer: DAVID MOLINA
Music Director: JESSE SANCHEZ
Fight Choreographer: CASEY KALEBA
Dialect Coach: CYNTHIA SANTOS-DECURE
Dramaturg: NAYSAN MOJGANI
Assistant Director: DYLAN ARREDONDO
Associate Costume Designer: ASHLYNNE LUDWIG
Assistant Costume Designer: STEPHANIE PARKS
Properties Coordinator: LINDA DI BERNARDO
Production Stage Manager: CHE WERNSMAN
Assistant Stage Manager: SAMANTHA WILHELM
Assistant Scenic Designer: ANDREW R. COHEN