Writers Theatre(Gillian)

Quixote: On the Conquest of Self

At the Writers Gillian Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Glencoe – The Writers Theatre is presenting the United States premiere of “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self.” It runs 90 minutes without an intermission and it deals in multiple ways with the famous Spanish novel “Don Quixote.”

Beyond that brief capsule of information, I have to tread carefully. To discuss the show in detail would be to end up with a string of spoiler alerts. The theater does not make programs available to the spectators until the show is over, and for a reason.

Here’s what can safely be said about the play without antagonizing uninformed patrons. The show starts out as essentially a monologue by Don Quixote in a superb impersonation by Henry Godinez, known up to now primarily as a director connected to the Goodman Theatre and also a major presence in Latino theater in Chicago.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Godinez introduces himself to the audience dressed in a medieval suit of armor that visually captures the fictional Don Quixote in all his deluded splendor. Godinez gives the audience a quick taste of the major episodes in the original Miguel de Cervantes novel, bringing people out of the audience to help the Don’s narrative. The actor and the spectators, at least on opening night, hit it off very nicely and their shared performing time had the whiff of one of Second City’s more successful extended improvisations.

Godinez’s Quixote may be most familiar as the hero of the “Man of La Mancha.” The musical is a 20th century adaptation of the early 17th century book, widely acclaim as the first and maybe the greatest novel ever written and possibly the most unread classic of our time. Godinez gives a confident performance and even includes a number of backward and forward summersaults, which isn’t bad for a 59-year old actor (Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi of the esteemed Actors Gymnasium in Evanston is credited as “Acrobatic Advisor”).

As the play reaches its halfway point the audience has enjoyed Godinez’s commanding impersonation of the title character, leavened with droll wit and audience interplay. He also dispenses a good deal of information about the novel itself (the author may not entirely be Cervantes. He may be one of four writers who created the two parts of the novel, separated by 10 years).

Photo Credit: Joe Mazza-Brave- Lux

About 45 minutes into the production Godinez asks if anyone has read “Don Quixote” in its entirety and from the back of the house an informally dressed young woman raises her hand, comes forward, and admits she’s read the whole thing. At that point the play takes a sharp and radical turn and viewers will soon discover that the dramatic deck has been switched on them.

From that point to the final blackout the action time travels to today and covers some serious thematic ground. There is a bit of singing and dancing, and a display of he verbal doubletalk known as pig Latin. The material also enters the territory of heavy drama, escalated by strong language totally absent from the first half of the evening.

The latter portion of the play has a social agenda, and the cry from the stage is to get involved and shed the apathy that is suffocating society and turning the world into an environmental catastrophe. One short bit even takes us to that moment in the play “Peter Pan” when Peter begs the audience to lend their emotional support to save Tinker Bell from dying.

The audience has to make its adjustment to the play’s swerves on the fly and some may be more accepting than others. I thought the second half scored some valid points about social responsibility but went on too long and meandered noticeably in the middle. The call for a rush to action to save us all seemed melodramatic and obvious, but I have never been a fan of declarations of the Triumph of the Human Spirit on a stage. I thought the first half of the play whizzed by and the second half needed trimming and revising. Near the end of the play the show’s cumbersome title was finally explained. We were informed what “on the conquest of self” means and why it is critical to saving society. I didn’t really get it.

The play was written in Spanish by a pair of luminaries from the Mexican theater, Claudio Valdes Kuri and Monica Hoth, and translated into English by Georgina Escobar. Kuri directed the Writers Theatre premiere and as co-author and director he must have gotten what he wanted from the play. I think he has an interesting dramatic concept that could stand some workshopping before it goes out into the theatrical world.

The intimate Gillian Theatre, with its flexible stage, is ideal for the play. There is no scenery but plenty of atmospheric lighting touches designed by Alexander Ridgers. Sanja Manakoski designed the costumes. Billy Siegenfeld is credit as choreographer but his work is more movement than dancing, and very effective.

“Quixote” most impresses for its performance by Henry Godinez, a physically and vocally demanding role. The man will be doing seven or eight performances a week through December 17, a heavy load for what is primarily a one-man show. “Quixote” is worth seeing for Godinez’s all around performance and for his wry handling of volunteers plucked from the audience to assist him in his storytelling. The man can certainly think on his feet. The play is a high-risk concept but the Writers Theatre has never backed off from high risks. I leave you with two final words—Emma Ladji.

“Quixote: On the Conquest of Self” runs through December 17 at the Writers Theatre Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 pm., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.

The show gets a rating of.

Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com            October 2017

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