By Andy Browers, Author, Bookriot.com
Man of La Mancha is one of the most reliable workhorses of the stage. Massive touring productions, dinner theaters, high schools, colleges, church basement drama clubs—you name it, they have done it, and people came and probably adored it. It’s one of those shows capable of doing much of its own heavy lifting, and if you get the lines right and assert some degree of mastery over its galloping music, the thing is going to be a success.
It is also a show set in a particular intersection of time, space, and cruelty called the Spanish Inquisition. So build that dungeon, dress that ensemble in rags, and transport us back to 17th century Espana. Right?
Not always. Director Peter Rothstein has expertly lifted the theatrical nesting doll of plays within plays from one period of barbaric inhumanity and inserted it right into another—the present day. It shouldn’t work. There should be no parallels between our points in history. We should have left the incarceration, intimidation, and grievous mistreatment of neighbors who make us uncomfortable in the 17th century. But we didn’t.
So swap that dusty old dungeon for a stark, cold, concrete holding cell filled for the most part with ethnic minorities. Let us watch, from the moment the house is open, as more are brought in until, at last, we see the small-statured intellectual and his friend shown into the room and we know it’s time to hitch up the old workhorse and get to it.
And let me just say: it works.
Let me also say that I am a sentimental fool with an unkickable idealism habit and a bottomless appetite for metaphor, so this show kind of speaks of my Quixotic language. Like the Lord of La Mancha himself, I saw many castles in Theater Latté Da’s masterful production looming behind the veneer of reality—subtext coaxed out by a fresh setting.
I thought about prisons. Yes, the preshow included a literal cell becoming occupied. But perhaps as equally frightening and cold was the psychological prison they began to occupy. Did they talk to each other? No. In fact, one character moved away when another took the seat immediately next to hers. These people are scared and they are isolated, insular, incarcerated within themselves. Welcome to 2017.
Everything changes when Miguel de Cervantes presents his theatrical defense before the Governor and company. A shared purpose and unified effort to bring Cervantes’ dream to life also brings each detainee to life, and if that ain’t a metaphor for the beauty of community, cooperation, teamwork and/or art and its ability to free us from the imagined cells dividing us, then I don’t know what is.
The play within the play became a stripped down, streamlined production with found objects providing sound effects and characters suggested artfully by partial masks and selective costume pieces, akin to the productions another Twin Cities company frequently delivers to prisons, shelters, and other lonely, hopeless people. The diverse cast of fifteen did the work of double or triple that number, led by the charismatic and buoyant performance of Martin Sola. The emotional and violent peaks and valleys of Meghan Kreidler’s Aldonza reached aching highs and lows, and I have never felt a crowd share in the triumph of the rumble against the muleteers more viscerally than I did on Friday night. The trio set in the Padre’s (Jon-Michael Reese) confessional was fresh and hilarious. Andre Shoals’ warmhearted fussbudget Innkeeper also deserves mention. Really, the ensemble worked as an excellent, cohesive and inventive whole.
The button of the show is a reprise of its greatest hit, and to quote the Padre, “I feel with pain that once again we now will hear an often heard refrain.” Only there was no pain. Zero pain. The song became something new; as the cast broke into “The Impossible Dream” , they broke it like a prism as it split into a handful of different languages into a musical theatre melting pot reflecting the American experience, the La Mancha experience, and the human experience all at once. Is it any wonder why people shot out of their seats to applaud the very second the cast stopped singing?
No way. Man of La Mancha lives, and it is not to be missed.
Andy Browers is a writer, actor, and director from Cloquet, MN. He contributes regularly to bookriot.com, and is currently working on a collection of essays related to pop culture. Andy will direct The Great Gatsby at Lakeshore Players in White Bear Lake, opening Dec. 2017.