Quixote Nuevo

by James Wilkinson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Dec 2, 2019
Emilio Delgado in "Quixote Nuevo"
Emilio Delgado in "Quixote Nuevo"  (Source:T Charles Erickson)

Does the end justify the route you took to get there? The Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Quixote Nuevo" is like the pebble of snow that starts rolling at the top of the hill. On the way down it gathers momentum, picking up bits of goodwill here and there, amassing in size until finally it reaches the bottom and bowls you over. I spent a good deal of the first act wavering on the play. It seemed that for every beautiful moment that pulled me in, there'd be another that didn't quite land, leaving me squirming in my seat. I couldn't give up on it though, some spark present up on that stage preventing me from checking out. I think that eventually the play comes around and you're rewarded for the perseverance. Whatever rough patches we tumble through, the production has the grit to keep chugging along. It does so with a wink that assures you it still has a few tricks up its sleeve. Turns out that it's right. As the play goes on, the scenes begin to sharpen. They stick you with greater and greater emotional impact until finally, in the play's final five minutes, everything comes together into a moment of pathos that's really quite glorious. We may have taken a twisted path to get there, but the play nails the landing.

Somehow, in the years of burning through my local library, I never got around to covering Cervantes. No matter. Familiarity with the source novel "Don Quixote," (full title: "The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha") will probably turn up some Easter eggs in this new reworking, but the uninitiated shouldn't feel intimated. The story that playwright Octavio Solis is telling is not one of the past, but one more immediate. Cervantes is lifted from 17th century Spain and plopped down in present-day Texas. Here, the blood-red sky stretches out to infinity over the flat horizon, the view only broken by a few simple storefronts somewhere down the road (the forced perspective created by Takeshi Kata's set is a neat trick and when lighting designer Brian Lilienthal floods it with color, the effect is gorgeous). That horizon practically beckons you to set off on a quest for adventure and it's an allure that will prove irresistible for our protagonist.

Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), we'll eventually learn, is all too familiar with "Don Quixote." At one time he was a university professor of literature, specializing in Cervantes. Now, having reached an advanced age and living with his sister and niece, he's begun the slide into dementia. On the day his family plans to move him to an assisted living facility he becomes confused, imagines himself to be Don Quixote and ventures into the Texas desert. As he interacts with the locals (who don't exactly dispel his illusions), we slowly learn what in this man's history is driving him off on his quest. Like all good heroes' journeys, we're not just going out, but inward and he's egged on by the spirits around him. The end of his time in this world is closing in, but until it gets here, this new Don Quixote, aided by his squire Manny (Juan Manuel Amador), still has enough fight left in him to slay his dragons (both real and imaginary).

There's an odd trick with the structure of "Quixote Nuevo" because playwright Solis essentially has to build out his story in two different directions. In one direction, we're following Jose/Don Quixote as he journeys across the Texas landscape. In the other direction, he has to try and give us a sense of who Jose was before his dementia took hold. I think this may have been part of why the play was slow to work on me. It wasn't until we reached the end that I was able to fully comprehend his arc and just how far the character has come. There's a stiffness to some of those early scenes, the play almost feels boxed in by the limits of the proscenium. You can sense it rattling around, trying to get free (particularly when Don Quixote flies off on his horse/bicycle can only travel in circles) and much of the dialogue has the contend with the necessary evil of shoehorning in exposition. Necessary though it may be, it doesn't exactly lead to engaging listening.

Thankfully, the production has director KJ Sanchez at the helm, who I think manages to find those wonderful moments of release when the production's visuals and storytelling come together. An early comic scene that has Jose/Don Quixote slaying a herd of sheep is the play at its playful best. A later scene of Jose slaying a border drone indulges in a loony image that's a lot of fun. There's an energy to these bits that have a lot of pop and carries the play along. And there are other moments of unexpected tenderness, at a campfire scene the past and present blend of our hero and his squire blend together in a way that's quite lovely. That visual flair will occasionally dip, (try as she might, Sanchez can't make the scenes of Jose's family chasing him through the desert as visually interesting), but every valley is soon followed by a peak.

What I was most taken with though, especially in the play's second half, was the clear sense of compassion that Sanchez and Solis have for their characters. You can feel it radiating off of them and into the theater space. A late scene has our hero coming across someone who has crossed the border (one of several roles played by Orlando Arriaga). Without going into spoilers, the man is simply given the time and space to tell his story and it hits you in the gut. The silence between his lines floods the theater.

In general, the acting company is great. Juan Manuel Amador gets a few great stand-out moments as Don Quixote's "squire," Manny. But at the end of the day, this is Don Quixote's story, which means it has to rest on the shoulders of Emilio Delgado. Just like the production around him, I think that his performance gains momentum as it goes on. He brings a lot of pep to the role, clearly having a lot of fun in the moments when he can let loose. In my mind, I keep coming back to that final scene, which has our hero raging against the dying light. In a moment that goes by so fast you could blink and miss it, a weight seems to appear on Delgado's shoulders. This grand champion we've been following, (ridiculous at times? Sure. But a champion nonetheless), suddenly ages before us. The swing of his lance is no longer quite so swift or sure. We see the man behind the illusion and are treated to a glimmer of something wonderfully human. After all we've been through, the long journey we've taken to get there, the destination ends up being worth the wait.

"Quixote Nuevo" is presented by the Huntington Theatre Company November 15-December 8, 2019. For tickets and more information, visit their website: visit the Huntington Theatre Company website.

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