After seeing director Art Grueneberger’s delightful "Man of La Mancha," performed with life-size puppets, the only question one must ask is: why didn’t anybody think of this before?
"Man of La Mancha," written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, which opened Friday night at the University Main Theater, tells the story of author Miguel Cervantes (Mario Castro Martinez), imprisoned for crimes against the Catholic Church (he attempted to foreclose on a monestary for non-payment of taxes), who is awaiting interrogation by The Spanish Inquisition.
Darrell F. Winn’s set is magnificent, dark and mysterious, with a long staircase which can be lowered from an upper level to the dungeon. The orchestra, under the direction of Pete Nowlen, is set off to the side behind bars and almost invisible. The only jarring element on the otherwise perfect stage is the guitar of Taehun Lee. Lee opens the show by walking out, sitting on a box and beginning to play a tune. It is a shame that into this perfectly created dark and murky world, a shiny, light colored, modern electric guitar, with a spotlight on it, should stand out like a sore thumb.
Cervantes comes into the prison with his manservant (Richard Hess). The pair are set upon by the other prisoners, who insist that the newcomer must be judged by his fellow prisoners at a mock trial for the crime of being "an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man."
Cervantes demands that he be allowed to defend himself and does so by presenting "an entertainment." Traditionally, Cervantes now begins to apply make-up from his trunk while his manservant passes out costumes to the prisoners as they prepare to tell the tale of Alonso Quijana, an old man who fancies himself a dauntless knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, determined to travel around the world and make it a better place.
In the current production, Cervantes is a puppeteer rather than simply an actor. Instead of costumes, the prisoners are given puppet figures to use in the presentation of the entertainment. The major character puppets are worked by two actors, Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, by three.
(Puppets were designed and built by Kristen Phillips)
Using puppets brings the musical into a different dimension. It allows for unusual casting, for example. Castro Martinez admits that he is entirely wrong for the role of Don Quixote. He is too young and too short, for starters. Yet with fellow puppeteers (Kate Cryan, torso, and Cary Babka, legs), you lose sight of the physical appearance of the actor and concentrate, instead, on that marvelous voice coming out of the body of the perfectly fashioned puppet. Castro Martinez thus becomes the perfect Quixote.
Babka deserves special praise because his operation of Quixote’s legs is so seamless that at intermission, my husband asked why there were 3 people listed in the program for that character, when he only noticed two.
Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, being short and round, becomes more of a cartoonesque character, with Kelly Fleischmann operating the torso and Matthew Escarcega the legs. Unlike Quixote’s long, lanky, articulated legs, Sancho’s are short and stubby and his little run step adds greatly to the appeal of the character. Hess is also a delightful comedic actor and his voice for Sancho is perfect for the puppet he controls.
Laura Snell is Aldonza, the prison whore, in whom Quixote sees only goodness and purity as his "Dulcinea." (Allison Minick controls the torso). This is a demanding role, vocally, and Snell had some difficulty in spots, but there was no denying her ability to instill the character with all the emotion necessary.
Matthew Moore was suitably threatening as the "Governor," whose job it was to preside at the prisoners’ trial of Cervantes and his manservant. Moore later played the Innkeeper in the fantasy (torso by Spencer Tregilgas) as a sympathetic man who understands Quijana’s need to have him believe his Quixote persona.
Daniel Reano-Koven was a menacing Duke, and later Dr. Carrasco (torso by Lee Riggs), the cynical, self-centered fiancee of Quijana’s niece (Franchesca Jimenez with torso by Kelsey Yoro)
Lowell Abellon added comedic elements as the Barber in the fantasy (with Jocelyn Tripet-Diel as the torso).
Other major characters included Bryan Pham and Lowell Abellon as Padre, Kaitlin Shaw and Kristina Stasi as the housekeeper, and Melanie Levy and Kaitlin Shaw as Maria/Fermina.
This production may seem to be about special effects (the night of the mirrors, when Quixote is forced to face reality, is quite impressive), but despite the use of puppets – or perhaps because of the use of puppets – this is a memorable production which touches the heart.