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SCR's 'Quixote Nuevo' is an Enjoyable Feast Marred Only by Too Many Thematic Ingredients

REVIEW: While uneven, the ambitious, visually and aurally elaborate contemporary update of the Don Quixote tale is well worth seeing.

Siguenza shines throughout a staging which, visually, leans heavily on the mythology of death as symbolized in Mexican culture – aided by designer Helen Q. Huang’s elaborate, often spectral puppets. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Jenny Graham
 

“Don Quixote” has been around for more than 400 years, yet we never seem to tire of the misadventures of its focal character nor of the mythos Cervantes interwove throughout his novel.


The tale has been translated and adapted countless times, having inspired or influenced a plethora of novels, short stories, operas, ballets, movies (live and animated) and stage versions, including a famed Broadway musical.


Now comes South Coast Repertory’s Southern California premiere of “Quixote Nuevo” by Octavio Solis. The playwright has been working with SCR for more than 30 years, and this bilingual retelling isn’t just literally “new,” but updates the tale to the 21st century and transports it from Spain to a small Texas town near the Mexico border.


The proximity of the fictional town of La Plancha to a border that’s been fraught with controversy of late empowers Solis to make sly references, through his characters, to U.S. immigration policy and, more specifically, the famed wall Trump promised his followers would be built to hinder anyone’s attempts to cross the border.


Two threads run through “Quixote Nuevo” that are so distinct, they might be said to strain the dramatic form.

Solis, of course, follows the escapades of Jose Quijano (Herbert Siguenza), a retired professor of literature whose specialty was the works of Cervantes. As his body weakens and his mental faculties begin to wane, he envisions himself as the hero of the author’s greatest work.


Calling himself “Don Quixote de La Plancha,” and requesting a local barkeep to dub him “the grand knight of the Chicanos,” Quijano/Quixote sets out on a quest (sword in hand, and riding an adult tricycle, no less) to protect and defend “the unemployed, the uninsured and the undocumented.” What really drives him, though, is his obsession with finding his childhood love, Dulcinea.

Raúl Cardona, left, shines in the darkly menacing role of the mysterious, black-clad Calaca, who appears at every critical juncture of the play, bent on bedeviling old man Quijano. Herbert Siguenza plays the man who believes he’s a knight errant named Don Quixote. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Jenny Graham

As in most versions of the story, this one’s main arc documents, in fanciful style, the erratic Quijano’s growing confusion and disorientation. By evening’s end, he seems almost resigned to accept the harsh reality of allowing his family to move him to an assisted living facility.


Meanwhile, gelato vendor Manny (Ernie Gonzales, Jr.), who Quijano sees as his squire, Sancho Panza, makes a leap from doubting the value of Don Quixote’s quest to urging the old man to keep fighting – and keep believing in his dreams.


There wouldn’t be much point in simply plunking 17th-century characters down in the 2020s and telling us a story we already know – hence the parallel thread Solis has originated, which infuses the narrative with both cultural and mythological elements from both sides of the border.


We get authentic-sounding Tejano music, composed by David R. Molina and Eduardo Robledo; minutely worked-out choreography by Marissa Herrera; and exquisitely detailed costumes by Helen Q. Huang, who has also designed and built the impressively elaborate puppets. These devices and more add something ethereal to the familiar story: elements of fantasy as well as the mysticism of both the American Southwest and ancient Mexico. Huang’s work in particular leans heavily on the mythology of death as symbolized in Mexican culture.

Audiences might find these trappings mere window dressing. They’re not, but the insistence upon meshing them with the narrative comes close to straining credulity.

Herbert Siguenza ably generates laughs and poignancy as the delusional lead character in “Quixote Nuevo.” It’s the fourth time the actor, best known for his work with the Chicano/Latino performance troupe Culture Clash, has appeared at SCR. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Jenny Graham

More on point, even if nearly as fanciful, is the inclusion of a dark, mysterious figure known as Calaca (Raúl Cardona). Clad entirely in black, he appears on stage early on. Seemingly a product of Quijano’s imagination, he pops in at nearly every critical juncture, apparently to bedevil the poor man and force him to question his decisions and actions.


If all of this sounds like an ambitious way to put Don Quixote in a new light, it is indeed. The sum total of Solis’ vision and SCR’s staging of it is a monumental undertaking, and sometimes the strain of trying to hold it all together into something coherent causes fissures to appear.


Is it all worth the effort, both for South Coast Rep and for its patrons? The answer is a qualified “yes.” If you ran one of the nation’s predominant regional theater companies for six decades, it makes sense that you’d want to lead off your 60th season with something this bold and daring, artistic risks and all.


Those risks are shared equally not just by Solis and everyone at SCR and its co-producers, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Portland Center Stage, but also by director Lisa Portes and Efren Delgadillo, Jr. (scenic design) and Pablo Santiago (lighting), who provide strongly flavorful visual design work.


Everyone on board has taken this leap, including Molina and Robledo’s tangy original score; music director Jesse J. Sanchez, who brings their music to life; co-composer Molina’s sound design; and consultants like Michael Polak (fight choreography and intimacy coach), Estela Garcia (puppet movement) and Cynthia Santos-DeCure (vocals and dialects).


We haven’t forgotten Portes’ cast, nine actors who not only act up a storm but who sing, dance, play instruments and operate life-size puppets as well.


Dr. Campos (Maya Malan-Gonzalez, left), Juana (Alexis B. Santiago), Magdalena (Laura Crotte) and Padre Perez (Sol Castillo) listen as a young man (Lakin Valdez) tells them Quijano, in his guise as Don Quixote, stole his mother’s bedpan, insisting it’s “the Golden Helmet of Mambrino.” Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory / Jenny Graham

Maya Malan-Gonzalez’s Dr. Campos, Quijano’s psychiatrist, and Sol Castillo as Padre Perez, his priest, struggle to find balance between their charge’s mental and emotional stability – in effect, a push-pull of science and faith. That the deluded old man sees Campos as the long-lost Dulcinea only complicates their task.


Laura Crotte, Viviana Garza, Alexis B. Santiago and Lakin Valdez deserve praise for juggling multiple roles, including the spectral, black-and-white skeletons who hang around Calaca. Even while he essays smaller supporting roles, Cardona is sharp, angular and darkly menacing.


Gonzalez, Jr.’s Manny is a steadfast sidekick, playing along in agreeing to be called Sancho Panza and to accompany Siguenza’s Quijano on a wild series of unpredictable mishaps.


At the center of it all is Siguenza, who really does make us believe that what his character’s fevered imagination generates is worth whatever physical and emotional pain he endures. Siguenza wisely displays physical vigor, deftly sidestepping our viewing his character as ineffectual.


The star elicits belly laughs, proclaiming “I am the Grand Knight of the Chicanos!,” then tugs our hearts by projecting a foolish appearance so at odds with his character’s heroic self-image. His bravado is a façade covering the self-loathing of someone convinced his life has been a failure, and not really sure his actions can alter that.


Readers should know what was announced from the stage on opening night: this co-production will move from Costa Mesa to Seattle to Portland.


So when you stop by SCR – and it’s a safe bet most of you will – you’ll be seeing the first leg of a mini-West Coast tour whose goal, we would guess, is to push the boundaries of theater and expand our concepts of a story and characters most of us were pretty certain we already knew.


Salty and earthy, and with uproarious humor and gritty poignance, this “new Quixote” is a vision of Cervantes’ epic novel like no other you’ve ever seen, rough edges and all.

'Quixote Nuevo'

Running Time: Two hours, 40 minutes (includes intermission) Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa When: Through Oct. 28 Cost: $29 to $105 Contact: 714-708-5500, www.scr.org


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