Dallas — When speaking with renowned playwright Octavio Solis about Don Quixote, you can immediately tell that this novel and Miguel de Cervantes have captured his imagination. Known as one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in America, Solis—a Texas native whose career began in Dallas, creating work for Dallas Theater Center, Undermain Theatre and elsewhere—has been in rehearsal for a fresh adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Shakespeare Dallas received a TACA Bowdon and Embrey Family Foundations Artist Residency Fund to have Solis and Spanish director Gustavo Tambascio collaborate on this project.
Solis began the journey with Don Quixote in 2009 when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned him to adapt the novel for the stage. However, that adaptation was quite different from what patrons will see at Shakespeare Dallas.
During the initial meeting with OSF, Solis inquired about what the company desired with this adaptation: “I asked them, do you want my take on it or do you want a costume drama? Meaning, something that’s more true to the novel and true to the period. They said, ‘We want a costume drama.’” Solis then set forth to create a traditional interpretation of the novel for the stage.
Solis pulled out segments from the novel and quickly found the project overwhelming due to the scope of Quixote’s adventures. “Every page is a different adventure so there’s hundreds to choose from…The episodes are almost interchangeable. There’s no arc, Quixote’s character doesn't grow or develop wisdom.” As a result, Solis marked the adventures that seemed to work best for the stage and started structuring a play. Even so, the novel contains two books totaling over eight hundred pages. He says, “I could only do book one [for OSF]. How do you do an 800-page novel in two hours?”
While Solis worked on the adaptation, he was surprised by humorous nature of the novel. “I never read it before and I never seen Man of La Mancha. But, everyone has this idea of Don Quixote as this epic tragical novel. It’s funny as hell.” When adapting Don Quixote, Solis believes that the overall tone is determined by the manifestation of Rocinante, Quixote’s horse. For the OSF production, Rocinante was represented as a puppet horse, operated by two people representing the head and the tail. As a result, the OSF production utilized various forms of puppetry to fill out the rest of Quixote’s world. The Shakespeare Dallas production has a very different take on the novel now set in La Mancha, Texas.
A few years after the OSF production, Shakespeare Dallas searched for an adaptation of the novel at a Shakespeare conference and found out through Jeanne, Solis’ wife, that he had written an adaptation. They asked Solis to submit his script for consideration right then. While Shakespeare Dallas gravitated towards Solis’ work, they were curious if he wanted to continue working on the script. “They wondered if there was room to expand and develop it. Most definitely; I wanted to put my stamp on it.”
Solis’ reimagined adaptation of Don Quixote utilizes the landscape of Terlingua and the Big Bend area near the Mexican border to place Quixote in present day Texas. Solis found many parallels between the landscape of medieval La Mancha and present day West Texas. He notes, “It’s really isolated, forbidding, really hot, really rocky, nothing to recommend except the beauty of Big Bend national park. But if you’re just living there it’s hard. It’s a hard life. And it’s one of those places where they want to build a wall.” Solis notes that the text has changed some and there’s more Spanish, but the fundamental story is the same.
In this version, Solis compares Quixote to a “real-life superhero,” ordinary citizens who put on a costume and fight crime in urban areas (like Phoenix Jones in Seattle). Quixote searches for dragons and trolls to fight, while yearning for his lost love from 30 years ago, Dulcinea. However, his connection with reality and fantasy is questioned throughout his adventures, yet he still pushes forward.
Solis grew fascinated with not only the adventures that Quixote undertakes but the way Cervantes framed the story and uses himself as a character. The play Quixote also captures these “meta” qualities of the novel. “The most interesting character in the novel wasn’t Quixote but the author who kept inserting himself in the novel and kept interrupting the story to say, ‘Ok now I don’t know if I should even keep going with this Dear Reader because this is even too ridiculous for me to believe. Even me.’” Cervantes is a character in Solis’ play who appears in multiple forms, commenting on and interacting with Quixote. Solis notes, “[Cervantes] tracks his progress, he meets him and talks to him. And Quixote has these conversations with him like ‘Have we met before?’”
Solis expresses a tinge of disappointment in previous imaginings of Don Quixote, as the title character has become more well-known than the author who created him. He notes, “No one remembers Cervantes, but they remember Quixote. They remember this image of this rather silly looking man in armor looking for dragons, trolls, and ladies in distress. Instead, he only finds farmers, shepherds, and drunken porters at posados.”
While Quixote has been updated for a contemporary audience, Solis hopes that people will recognize that a true adaptation is not simply transferring the novel to the stage by rote. He aimed to recreate the personal experience he had reading the novel onto a completely different medium. He says, “I want people who are studying the novel or who know the novel to watch my play and recognize the novel. Man of La Mancha is not the novel, it’s not. They did something quite beautiful but it’s not the novel. I wanted to adapt the novel, that was my task.”
Solis hopes to be commissioned to do an adaptation of Book Two, which continues the adventures of Quixote but with more cruelty aimed toward the protagonist. Solis notes, “In Book Two, every character except Quixote has read Book One. They’ll say, ‘Here comes that guy who thinks he’s a knight, let’s trick him.’” After this production, Solis hopes that his relationship with Shakespeare Dallas will continue to create this complete adaptation of Don Quixote in La Mancha, Texas.
» Quixote previews Wednesday, June 21 and Thursday, June 22; opens Friday, June 23 with additional performances on June 24 and 25. Beginning next week, it alternates with Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in the Shakespeare in the Park season. Quixote plays on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; and Merry Wives on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre at Tenison Park in East Dallas. Curtain is 8:15 p.m. Picnics, blankets, low-back chairs, and wine and beer welcome; no pets. The season closes July 22.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.