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Review: “The Knight Errant Don Quixote” At Amphibian

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Ivan Jasso and Jeremy Schwartz in The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote. Photos: Raul Mosley

Don Quixote rides again – in a world-premiere adaptation commissioned by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says this is a more contemporary treatment of Cervantes’ classic tale of the crazy old knight and his sadsack sidekick.


Don Quixote de La Mancha, written at the time of William Shakespeare, remains a masterpiece because — like a number of Shakespeare’s plays — it can still crack funnybones and break hearts. The same might be said of the new Amphibian adaptation by Brenda Withers — except the heartbreak in this case comes from watching so much inventiveness and talent go into a would-be whimsical production that doesn’t click. It doesn’t make you really laugh out loud or, for that matter, dream some of those impossible dreams.

My humble apology. That last line, of course, is from the Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha. Unfortunately, in America, it’s hard for any Quixote adaptation to escape that particular truncated, sentimental wallow (and one wonders if playwright Withers is slyly mocking it or invoking it, the number of times the terms “impossible” and “dream” pop up in her final scene). But there’s so much more in Miguel de Cervantes’ epic, great-hearted novel — even though the basic story outline remains the same as the musical’s: A demented old man reads too many medieval tales of chivalry, frightens his friends and family by dubbing himself Don Quixote and convincing the peasant Sancho Panza to be his squire, to join his quest and to follow the path of knight errantry.

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The saintly Duclinea getting her bawdy Bessie Smith on: Christie Vela, right.

“A knight is noble, a knight is beneficent,” the don declares in Withers’ version. “A knight is an original, individual force in the world and must have a name to match.”

“But I thought Alonzo Quixano was quite original,” replies the sensible Sancho. “I knew no other Alonzo Quixano but you.”

“Nor do you know another Don Quixote!”

“No, of course. I do, however, know a donkey Jorge.”

“Heh …. what?!”

That’s typical of Withers’ invention and of the sublime-to-the-ridiculous tumble down the stairs of Cervantes’ humor. In the novel, Cervantes never names the donkey Jorge, and the donkey Jorge/Don Quixote pun works only in English. In Spanish, donkey, of course, is burro. Withers,  a founding member of Cape Cod’s Harbor Stage Company, has made Quixote contemporary — the play starts with him  unconscious, rigged up in a hospital bed — but it’s still more faithful in spirit than Man of La Mancha. For one thing, his friends and priest soon torch all his deceitful books  — with a giant digital-projection fire blazing away on stage — and break into a happy dance. This is a war on fantasy, on the pleasures of literature itself.

Jeremy Schwartz plays the don, and Schwartz has always been a commanding presence on a stage, a great, roaring, comic beast or buffoon. But truth be told, Schwartz is best at characters who are earthbound or earthy, rooted or rutting. Fact is, he’d make a superb Sancho Panza. Quixote, on the other hand, is a dreaming saint, a delightful, woeful, ethereal loon, barely tethered to our world of limitations and necessities. The comedy in Quixote often resides in the don’s crash landings back to earth. And it’s only at the end, when Schwartz’s don is finally, fully earthbound that he becomes truly moving.

As Sancho Panza, Ivan Jasso isn’t short or squat — as the character is typically portrayed, though Cervantes never really describes the squire that way. Because Sancho is often motivated by ordinary hunger or fortune-hunting, and because of the inevitable Mutt-and-Jeffyness of the two — Quixote gaunt and riding his skinny nag named Rocinante, while Sancho plods along on a lowly donkey — even the earliest illustrated editions went for the comic (and class-based) contrast. Hence, a rounder Panza, lower to the ground.

Even so, thin, young Jasso makes for an endearing Sancho: Sancho, the Reluctant and Henpecked, but also Sancho the Kind and — only when absolutely necessary — Sancho the Resourceful. The don loses his lance and Sancho hands him a tree branch. Immediately, Quixote’s spirits revive, and it’s “On Rocinante! On Pancho!”

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Quixote and Panza from an early 17th century edition

The Amphibian show’s best moments are its most flamboyant, its most un-literal yet most theatrical. Quixote and Sancho tally-ho off on their quest — but on bicycles. Dulcinea – Quixote’s saintly love, played by Christie Vela – gets saucy with the old Spencer Williams song, “I’m Wild About That Thing,” made famous by Bessie Smith (“Please don’t hold it, baby, when I cry / Give me every bit of it or else I’ll die”). Director Matthew Earnest and his splendid design team do their best to jazz things up like this. There are the animal-headed bicycles, the don’s goggles and ski pole-lance, a human-sized bird cage and a grass-colored set by designer Sean Urbantke. It has little sconces and pop-out windows in the walls and doors on both wings that allow this three-sided room to swing open with instant entrances and exits.

It’s a fine-looking production; one just wished for more departures from stage realism, more clever cracks in that fourth wall. Cervantes’ novel contains satiric portraits of real life in 16th-century Spain, but the novel is at heart a fantastical fable warning us — with self-referential tongue in highly literary cheek — against believing fantastical fables. In the second volume, Quixote and Sancho even discover everyone knows them from the first volume. So they journey to Barcelona — the headquarters of Spain’s book industry at the time — to find the publisher and complain about how they were portrayed. Think of a yarn as knowing and in-jokey as TV’s Arrested Development.

But it’s an Arrested Development that still can pull some tears, if properly done. Don Quixote manages to be both a tragedy and a self-aware comedy as it seesaws between the don’s valiant delusions and Sancho’s glum pragmatism That’s why this show needs more ingenuity, not simply from Withers’ script but more digital projections, more ridiculous theatricality. I appreciate this production looks to be Amphibian operating at the top of its technical and design game, but The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote is close to breaking out at times into the grand and goofy. And then it settles back into the merely diverting.

Something is ‘quixotic’ when it’s a noble but foolish effort, it’s tilting at windmills. But in chasing after Cervantes’ giant novel, the Amphibian production is actually not foolish enough. Not quixotic enough.

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Don Quixote (Jeremy Schwartz) trapped back on earth.