Fort Worth — “I am off!” cries Don Quixote, leaping toward a new adventure. “Yes, I think you may be, Señor,” says Sancho Panza—referring to the Don’s sanity, not his travel plans.
Amphibian Stage Productions’ playful and richly visual world premiere of Brenda Withers’ re-working of Cervantes’ Don Quixote stories, The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote, has a title almost too long to speak in one breath—but its central ideas are short and sweet.
Life is better if you try to do some good in the world—even if it doesn’t always stick—and it’s definitely better with someone to keep you company. And, as Sancho says, everyone should read before bedtime—it gets us ready to dream our dreams, which may be less impossible than we think.
Withers’ script is a hymn, in fact, to the many ways books and words change lives—and to the power of friendship. Directed with fizz and imagination by Matthew Earnest [see our interview with him here], the production is notable on many levels, but perhaps most potently for the loving chemistry that warms the stage space shared by the two lead actors, Jeremy Schwartz as the wealthy idealist Quixano—who renames (and knights!) himself as Don Quixote—and Ivan Jasso as poor, straight-thinking farmer Sancho.
There’s a vital connection between them from the first moments, as the Don tries to read over Sancho’s shoulder. A peasant with a book? He’s intrigued. It’s a joy to watch their bantering wordplay and serio-comic philosophizing, as these two outwardly different men become legendary soul mates.
In Withers’ telling of the tales—she cut her playwriting teeth with the funny Matt & Ben, written with friend Mindy Kaling—the Don isn’t a loony and Sancho isn’t a clown. This is a “buddy movie” from more than 300 years ago, funny and frolicky, but with a serious streak at the heart. It asks the question: what can a crusading dreamer and a hardscrabble realist have to give each other and the world? The surprising answer is: a different way of living, where realism isn’t cold, and idealism isn’t fuzzy. Don Q and Sancho find a center, a companionable crossroads where their two minds meet. They slowly discover a way to live and act in the “right now”—Man beating boy? Princess in distress? Let’s do something!—that infuses their lives with purpose and glory. Sometimes (though I wouldn’t ask a certain shepherd about them) they even right some wrongs.
They help each other. Sancho’s realism saves the Don from some of his wilder flights of fancy; the Don’s arms-wide view of his mission in the world makes Sancho broaden his thinking too. We know Sancho is open to becoming a bigger man, as he’s reading a book when we meet him.
The rest of the cast keeps up beautifully with the strong leads. Christie Vela is lovingly vibrant—and a smoky chanteuse—as the housekeeper the Don re-imagines as Dulcinea, his queen and treasure. Bob Hess delights as a bossy priest who plots and plans to bring this errant knight back to the fold—though his interest seems more earthly than spiritual.
John Forkner, no stranger to the ‘Phibs, amuses both as a faithful-friend barber and an eye-fluttering lady-in-waiting (the supporting cast members double and triple in roles). Steph Garrett and Nathan Smith make lively Amphibian debuts: she as Quixote’s resourceful and caring niece (and a stray princess); he as a hospital nurse—but more memorably as a DaVinci-style winged lover and (is there a “history of flight” theme?) as the whirling windmill Quixote sees as a giant he must vanquish.
The production showcases the talent of an unusually large contingent of designers and artisans who worked on masks, wings, textiles, props and more to bring this vision to life. Scenic designer Sean Urbantke’s fluid set begins in tones of ice-cold hospital gray, with a many-doored wall used like the old Laugh-In set. As we are whisked into an imaginary world—walled with green grass—we move into a place of color and movement.
Beautiful flights of birds (from projections designer JB Felipe) lift across the grass/wall/sky as the Don’s imaginings expand outward. Laura Anderson Barbata and a terrific costume and textiles team give Quixote a gorgeous found object suit of armor, and the Great Books theme continues with word-printed textiles crafted by students at the U. of Wisconsin. The stunning costume for Vela’s torch-singer scene—heavy cream fabric with lines of Miguel de Cervantes’ own handwriting flowing across in curving script—seems to glow from the darkness around her. And there are books everywhere—falling from the ceiling, flapping off the stage like a startled flock of pigeons.
Kenneth Farnsworth’s lighting is eye-paining and institutional for scenes of Quixano/Quixote lying on his (not quite yet) deathbed, and he helps create evocative shadow-plays and silhouettes that wordlessly tell some of the Don’s adventures. David Lanza’s sound design—from a submarine-ish background noise that fills the hospital room, to the crash and bang of knightly battle—enlivens every scene.
Withers’ script finds light-hearted ways of making its deeper points, and there’s a good feel for comic timing and the odd da-dum-ching joke. She’s certainly not afraid to mix the serious with the silly. Toward the silly end, the actors’ “who’s on first?” riff on the names “Don Quixote” and Sancho’s donkey is high-larious. Director Earnest and the team have taken a fine script and made it even more memorable with quirky visuals, surprising steeds, and bits of theatrical business that shouldn’t be given away by mere critics. Especially wonderful at the end, though, is a moment when a lighter, used earlier in the play to start a bonfire of destruction, is now offered to light a candle to read by. There’s magic and hope in that image.
In the end, the characters are still arguing over questions we struggle with today: Is it crazy to think you can fight every fight—or crazier still (and sadder) to believe you can’t fight any of them? Whose job is it “to keep vigil for the weakest,” to listen for “the quietest voices” and the cries of despair—and do something about it? What’s worse: to try for a world that could be, and risk failure or ridicule, or to turn away and keep your heart closed tight as a fist?
It’s no wonder Amphibian founder and Artistic Director Kathleen Culebro initially commissioned Withers’ fun and pointed script as a work to perform at schools. She was right: these are ideas our kids need to think about—but wisely, she knew Quixote’s story was one for the grownups, too.