The impossible dream: Squabbalogic’s Man of La Mancha

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is one of those books which, like its titular character, has assumed a life much larger than anything its author could have dreamed of upon writing. It’s a sprawling beast of a tome, written in two parts, and published ten years apart in the early seventeenth century, and is very much about stories, telling stories, living stories, and ultimately, becoming a story ourselves. It’s a mercurial book, too, constantly shifting and changing, dropping in and out of layers of metatextual conceit like Russian dolls or Chinese puzzle boxes; just when you think you’ve got a handle on the narrative, it twists, disappears, and journeys on to another adventure. In brief, it is the story of a man who believes he is a knight errant by the name of Don Quixote, and along with his squire Sancho Panza, journeys forth to right wrongs, and restore justice and order wherever he goes. In one sense a satirical riposte to the proliferation of chivalric stories at the time, it quickly becomes much more than just that, and becomes a rhapsody upon life in all its complexities and contradictions. Ever since reading the book two and a half years ago, I’ve had the impossible dream of wanting to see it come alive, to watch the pasteboard knight gallivant across the Spanish mountains with as much presence and life and aliveness as he has in the book.  
Enter, then, Squabbalogic and their production of Man of La Mancha. Written by Dale Wasserman (originally as a one-act teleplay), with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, and premiered in 1965, it is not so much a musical of Don Quixote or a musical of the life of its author Cervantes (though it certainly draws heavily on elements from both), but rather a musical based on the world of Don Quixote. Taking a page from Cervantes’ own book and methods, the musical opens in a Spanish prison some time in the late sixteenth century, with Cervantes and his manservant charged with foreclosing on a monastery unable to pay debts. Accosted by the inmates, Cervantes pleads guilty to the charges laid against him, and seeks the opportunity to offer his defense in the only way he knows how: a story – a play – acted out by the inmates themselves. The story of the man of La Mancha.

It’s a glorious conceit, exploited with relish by director Jay James-Moody and designers Simon Greer (set), Benjamin Brockman (lighting) and Brendan Hay (costumes). Like the simplest acts of theatre, everything is cobbled together from what the inmates can find in the prison, but instead of taking away from this production, it adds grit and a raw edge which suits Cervantes’ story and this telling of it like a glove; in many respects, it is a subtly suitable evocation of Quixote’s own way of seeing things that aren’t really there. Taking a leaf out of the work of director John Doyle, musical director and arranger Paul Geddes whittles Leigh’s rich orchestrations down to a sparse orchestra played by the performers. While we understandably lose some of the full-bloodedness of the sound of Spain’s Golden Age, these new arrangements are still recognisable, and allow the voices to come to the fore. And there’s a beautiful rawness here too, both to the sound and the look of Squabbalogic’s production, which suits the story perfectly, and gives it an edge over productions with more resources at their disposal.
The production, appropriately enough for its title, centres around the character(s?) of Cervantes and Don Quixote; played here by Tony Sheldon, there is a loose-limbed grace to his performance, a kind of youthful vigour and panache which is perfectly suited to the pasteboard knight and his maverick creator. While there is the temptation to push Quixote to the cartoonish extreme of the deluded knight, James-Moody and Sheldon refrain, and what we get instead is a poignant and memorable performance, shot through with a harrowing sense of one’s limitations as a human, and yet sparkles with a capricious wit and delight at our infinite capacity for dreaming and story. His performance of the show’s standout song ‘The Impossible Dream’ is all the more poignant and memorable for this downplaying, and he reclaims it from the real of stand-alone showstopper and restores it to its place as an integral part of the story. There’s a beautiful dignity too, to his death and exit – out of the prison and story – that hints at the continuing nature of his story, both that of Cervantes and Quixote, as both are barely able to be contained within a stage-play-cum-musical, let alone in a book. Marika Aubrey’s Aldonza/Dulcinea, Quixote’s knightly love-interest, is powerfully-voiced, and has a defiant poise which suits her character’s firecracker role; her coaxing of a fading Quixote at the end is beautiful (even if the script’s dialogue is slightly clunky), and there is a powerful echo of a much larger juggernaut of a show as she leads the ensemble in a final chorus of ‘The Impossible Dream’ at the end, the belief that no matter who we are, stories can contain the seeds to a better life.
The ensemble James-Moody has assembled is rough and raucous in appearance, but in action there is a fiery spirit to their performances and singing which suits the staging, venue and story well. Ross Chisari’s Sancho Panza is a knock-about foil to Sheldon’s knight, and has a number of memorable moments; Stephen Anderson and Shondelle Pratt’s horse and donkey (respectively) are a genius stroke of stagecraft; Glenn Hill and Joanna Weinberg bring a human sense of authority and order to their respective roles as the Padre and Duke, while Laurence Coy brings a welcome sense of compassion to his roles as the Governor and innkeeper.
It’s a style of playing which seems to come from the spirit of play-fullness within the story itself, from the very fabric of Cervantes’ book, from the soil of Spain itself, though it isn’t without its darkness and sinister edge. Underneath the colour and verve of Leigh’s music, of Wasserman’s book, of Cervantes’ novel, is an “immensely sobering story,” though it is of course humorous and epic in turn and at once. As Harold Bloom writes, “[just] as Shakespeare wrote in no genre, Don Quixote is tragedy as well as comedy,” and Jay James-Moody captures this duality in his staging. The brutality of the muleteers and their subsequent rape of Aldonza; the constant sallying forth of Quixote against foes that aren’t there; the appearance of the gypsies and Quixote and Sancho losing everything they have, save their lives and the clothes they are wearing; the appearance of the Knight of the Mirrors; Quixote’s death; the ever-present threat of the Spanish Inquisition in the meta-theatrical frame to the story… these instances are just a few of the moments of darkness which pepper the story, shocking us out of our familiarity with the pasteboard-knight’s doddering and wobbly gallivanting.
Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Don Quixote, argues that “[both] parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopaedia of cruelty… it is one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned [yet] its cruelty is artistic.” And I think there’s something magical in seeing Man of La Mancha performed, that the comedy of the get-up-again knight and his delusions, and the tragedy of a man who cannot see the world for what it really is, can sit side by side each other in relative harmony, neither cancelling the other out, but enriching and complementing the other to form a near-sphere, a rounded story. Of course, the plot and structure of Wasserman’s book is repetitive, though that is because it is largely faithful to Cervantes’ book, where repetition only gives the story more resonance as you shift between layers of meta-stories. While Man of La Mancha doesn’t quite have the same metatextual complexity as Cervantes (it is but two hours’ traffic on a stage, after all), there is still enough clever shifting from layer to layer, sometimes jumping layers in the process, to keep the story bubbling along, keep the knight on his endless quest.

While Man of La Mancha might not be the most perfectly formed musical, there is enough magic and charm and humanity in it to satisfy the average theatre-goer, and enough darkness, whimsy and ingenuity in Jay James-Moody’s production to satisfy even Cervantes himself. When Quixote – or rather, Alonso Quixano – is revealed to be either the maddest sane man or the sanest madman, there is a neat kind of symmetry to the story, a kind of full-circle realisation that no matter how much we believe things to be real or not, we are all capable of dreaming an impossible dream, no matter how far or hopeless it is; we are all the white knight in our own way, tilting at windmills and chasing an unreachable star

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