Dallas — In his short story “Pierre Manaud: Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges praises a fictional author who wrote sections of a “new adventure” of the Hidalgo de La Mancha that is word-for-word identical to the original. Borges’ conclusion however is “The Cervantes text and Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.”
How to interpret this vis-a-vis the Cervantes canon? Especially since at the conclusion of Cervantes' original, he warns future authors “thou shalt warn to leave at rest where they lie the weary moldering bones of Don Quixote, and not to attempt to carry him off, in opposition to all the privileges of death…making him rise from the grave where in reality and truth he lies stretched at full length, powerless to make any third expedition or new sally.”
Yet the Texas native playwright Octavio Solis and Madrid-based director Gustavo Tambascio have resurrected the knight, his adventures and the quest for his love, the maiden Dulcinea in the Shakespeare Dallas production of Quixote with all the life and vigor, all the profundity and intentional absurdity of the original. Cervantes’ implicit words of warning to future authors cannot overcome what Cervantes observes himself in the author’s preface of the original: “I could not counteract Nature's law that everything shall beget its like.”
The play was originally staged at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009 and has heen considerably reworked for Shakespeare Dallas. This production was supported by the TACA Bowdon and Embrey Family Foundations Artist Residency Fund.
Like the original, we find the idea of man’s action and nature’s laws conflicting in Solis’ exceptional play. The same agonia y alegria de la vida (or what Camus would simply call “the absurd”) is seen in the wonderful performances of Jim Jorgensen as the titular character and Anthony L. Ramirez as his squire, Sancho Panza.
In these characters and actors, we see the conflicts of the human condition laid before us in sparkling layers of clarity and depth. In Jorgensen, succeeding in a difficult role, it’s a man fully embracing while consciously oblivious to the contradiction in his devotion to the code of chivalry—a knight riding an electric scooter in his underclothes. These ideas give birth to actions that never work towards their goals while generating the friction and foundation of the play. In Ramirez, we find a character that accepts what the world is and the people in it. He knows his absurdity; riding a paletas cart and accompanying a scooter-bound knight are just another fact of life.
To build on the psychology of the characters another way, the chivalric code and the actions of Quixote are a version of Plato’s Republic: a logically built, ideal code of moral conduct and governance that ignores mankind’s inherent traits. It’s a philosophy in action bound to fail, but one in which the character and Jorgensen’s inhabiting of the role cannot help but provide the pathos the theater audience craves. The counterpoint is in Ramirez as jesting stoic and modern man—one who accepts the complexity and contradiction between man and nature and will strive to minimize the damage of his knight’s actions and enjoy himself on his short time on this world/stage.
To come back to the idea of the resurrection of this Hidalgo de La Mancha, Solis has stated in past interviews that he fluctuates between calling himself a “Latino playwright” and “a playwright,” disdaining labels for their limitations. Though his pedigree as Texas native whose playwriting career began in Dallas, as the son of Mexican immigrants and writer of numerous plays staged in Dallas and full of Latino characters including Santos y Santos, Shiner, Se Llama Cristina and Lydia, it would certainly not be a stretch to claim that label.
But this identity, whether one calls it “Latino” or “Octavio Solis,” has given birth to this play in which he successfully resurrects Quixote in his home state. The play’s backdrop is Texas and to say that it is executed brilliantly for both comedic depth as well as art mimicking life is an understatement.
The set, by Michael Sullivan, recalls the western movie canon (and the music before the play, all straight from those same westerns) set the scene marvelously. The shifts in the lighting (by Adam Chamberlin) between scenes gave a subtle yet lovely cue to the key changes throughout the play and suggest those surreal moments during Texas nights and sunsets when the world appears beautiful and still—giving the audience a moment to catch its breath before the next action.
There is no shortage of attempts in modern American theater to throw in topical themes, jam them together on top of a classical overlay and hope the audience doesn’t look too closely at the completed puzzle and notice that the whole picture is indecipherable. Specifically, Cervantes’ “side stories” that Solis recreates add depth to this story rather than distracting. They remind us that “everything shall beget its like” and broaden our understanding of the story of Quixote, the story of humanity, and the story of Texas. The layering of the dancing “muses” in traditional China poblana dresses (costumes by Claudia Stephens) introduces an admirable complement in form and fits the play well—and may have something to do with the magical resurrection, the muses being that which brings forth the story in classical Greek theater.
David Goodwin as the Cervantes avatar manages an outstanding intensity in what are usually short yet frequent forays on the stage. The enjoyable “side story” performances of Zachary Valdez as Cardenio, Madison Calhoun as Lucinda, Tommy Stuart as Fergus, and Alejanda Flores as Dorotea are laudable for their ability to pull off a “play within a play” successfully and demonstrate a universality (a word used frequently in the play) in the pedantic love affairs of men and women within a quasi-farcical yet existentialist quest story.
Marcus Stimac as the Innkeeper is a fantastic bridge to the audience, in his incredulity towards Quixote’s actions. Shawn Gann as the Friar, Nicole Densen as the Housekeeper and Braden Socia as the Barber play off each other well and bring excellent comic highlights.
To conclude, let us return to Borges, the consummate lens to help us see our hidalgo more clearly. In one of his lectures, he posits that at the end of Cervantes’ tale, though the final scene is the death of our hero, we are left with happiness. It’s a happiness of having known a friend. How much happier can we be at the end of Solis’ Quixote when we see our knight break down a wall on the Texas border separating him from his love, Dulcinea?
Shakespeare Dallas has accomplished a terrific feat: recreate a classic tragic hero that is at once true to the original and innovative, and give him a happy ending.
» Quixote 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.