Tilting at Windmills

Actors Cabaret dreams big with the musical Man of La Mancha

Actors Cabaret of Eugene ventures into uncharted territory with its very first production of Man of La Mancha, which opened on Sept. 27 and brings a fresh perspective to the classic novel Don Quixote.  

Written by Dale Wasserman and with Spanish guitar standards and lyrics by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, Man of La Mancha is the super-meta play-within-a-play inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ incomparable tale of the glass-is-half-full aging knight in dusty armor Don Quixote.

The entire story takes place in a shadowed dungeon. Blue-lit walls backed by warm orange candlelight transform the small stage into a 17th-century prison. The players are dressed in earthy browns, reds and teals, and an interlude of horses reminiscent of Dark Crystal creatures along with glittering gypsies, mirrored armor and a disco-ball cape offer a brief reprieve from musty prison life.

Joe Zingo leaves his mark all over this show — directing, costuming, lighting, probably lasagna-ing. 

Cervantes/Quixote, played by the composed and seasoned Michael P. Watkins, orchestrates an entire musical while awaiting his impending fate from both his fellow prisoners and the menacing inquisition above — a brilliant display of the imagination and an homage to art itself.

Watkins is more tired sage than mad fool, a notable difference in the theatrical version of Don Quixote.  Though his fellow players often question Quixote’s sanity, the audience is given a more favorable bird’s-eye view.  

Man of La Mancha surgically dissects perspective, the most obvious examples being Quixote and the fiery, foul-mouthed Aldonza (Erica Jean). Instead of the hardened peasant girl, Quixote sees Jean as Dulcinea, a pure-of-heart lady in waiting. Jean is all grit and grandeur, scratching and clawing her way through messy hair in the late second act number “Aldonza.” Pain besets her life-imposed self-perception — we hear ya, sister.  

The irrepressible “Impossible Dream,” which old blue-eyes himself made famous in the ’60s, feels a little flat in light of the more-unexpected numbers.  “We’re only thinking of him” is a harmonious, trilling seesaw between Antonia (Katie Hammond) and the Housekeeper (Sarah Smaw), and “To Each His Dulcinea” is a dimly lit, soft defense of Quixote’s madness sung by the Padre (Jim Arscott).

ACE flips the table on the mean-spirited “Little Bird, Little Bird,” as an ensemble of playful peasant women tease the menacing Pedro (Paul Anderson) and the Mulateers instead of the Mulateers harassing Aldonza. Unfortunately, Aldonza is not spared elsewhere. 

Jean takes a literal beating as Aldonza. Breath-holding intensity offsets the goofier knight-fighting-a-windmill vibe. Though funny, thoughtful and layered with insight, violence against women cuts deep into the night.  

Despite the sluggish start and a couple of subdued singing voices, ACE’s production of this classic is simply good — the kind of good that keeps you thinking about it long after, as questions are turned over on slow walks back to the car and then again over coffee.  

 Playful proverbs toy with the mind: “Too much sanity may be madness,” Quixote exclaims, “and the maddest of all — to see life as it is, and not as it ought to be.”

The lines between batty and brilliant are blurred, and as someone who is admittedly incapable of optimism, I find Don Quixote’s woeful countenance a refreshing alternative to the overwhelming sense of polarized doom emanating off the screen these days. ACE’s production makes it nearly impossible not to choose hope, even in the face of black eyes and the Spanish Inquisition. There’s real defiance in that kind of optimism; even staunch realists can get down with rebelliousness.  

But if you prefer a more cynical approach to life — and who could blame you — there’s still a knight dressed as a disco-ball. 

Man of La Mancha plays through Oct. 26 at Actor’s Cabaret of Eugene; times and tickets at actorscabaret.org.