Miguel de Cervantes’ famous character Don Quixote is the poster boy for the power of imagination as sparked by a love of reading; he unabashedly is happiest when in the world of his own making. There are many ways to think about this character: Idealistic? Foolish? Passionate? Crazy? Yes, please.
Playwright Brenda Withers celebrates all those facets in her whimsical adaptation of Cervantes’ stories in The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote, commissioned by Amphibian Stage Productions and having its world premiere there.
Director Matthew Earnest and a top-notch design team add even more whimsy. It’s the best-looking theatrical production the group has managed yet, and one of the finest Fort Worth has seen in years.
Jeremy Schwartz plays Alonso Quixano, a man who steps out of a coma and into the character of Don Quixote, who soon finds farmer and fellow book-lover Sancho Panza (Ivan Jasso), and they’re off on an adventure.
Quixano’s Housekeeper (Christie Vela) becomes Dulcinea, and the ensemble of Bob Hess, Steph Garrett, John Forkner and Nathan Smith play multiple roles, everything from a priest (Hess) to a windmill (Smith).
Earnest adds a wordless (and too-long) prologue, set in the modern-day hospital where Quixano lies silent in bed, hooked up to machines. The Housekeeper and others mourn his imminent death, and it’s as melodramatic as anything you’d see in a telenovela. Books, no doubt, are the miracle that saves him.
Then the large transparent curtain is pulled back, books fall from the ceiling (interesting, in the script that launched Withers’ career, Matt & Ben, written with her pal Mindy Kaling, a script falls from above), and we enter into the fantastical world of La Mancha.
Sean Urbantke’s gorgeous scenic design features grassy walls with little face-size windows that open; but his most exquisite achievements are the added elements, such as Quixote’s and Panza’s horse and donkey, which have bicycle bodies (the horse is a penny-farthing bike), a flock of sheep and a giant bird cage in which Quixote is finally trapped.
Costumer Laura Anderson Barbata matches the fabulous eccentricity of Quixote’s found-object breastplate with a colander helmet, some wonderful winged creatures, the cleverly designed windmill and a gorgeous dress worn by Vela with printed words from Cervantes’ novel (the textile print was created at the University of Wisconsin — Madison). Beautifully rendered masks are by Jeff Semmerling.
Earnest has fun remixing an already wild remix of a classic story, a theatrical trend that’s not new but has been getting some traction lately (compare it to Lee Trull’s Wilde/Earnest, a fantasia on The Importance of Being Earnest seen this year at Kitchen Dog Theater).
With a remix, the fantasy possibilities are endless: Actors break out into crazy dances between scenes, or they perform with a microphone on a mic stand as an interlude to the audience; Vela is terrific at the top of Act Two as a chanteuse playfully singing I’m Wild About That Thing.
Such moments tell the audience that it’s perfectly OK to choose your own adventure. Considering Quixote’s penchant for flights of fancy, it makes even more sense here.
As wonderful as it all looks and sounds, the bond between Schwartz and Jasso is what anchors the production and is of course important to any retelling of Don Quixote. Panza is the heart of the story, and Jasso taps into that; he’s somewhat a voice of reason who’s willing to let his friend be unaffected by any ability to reason.
Schwartz keeps the wide-eyed idealism going, and even in the heartbreaking final moments, as Quixote is caged, he still has hope as he leans in to watch Panza reading, continuing the story.
As much as this is a love letter to freeing the imagination through reading, several times in this adaptation — such as with the burning-book visuals and the accusation that books have corrupted Quixano’s mind — there’s a darker message. Reading is fundamentally important to anyone who aspires to be a better thinker, a better person, but woe to a society in which reading and self-educating are no longer valued.
Just take a glance at your social media feed or the comments section of any news story — or even at the audacity of elected officials — to realize that this is sadly true. Don Quixote, save us.
The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote
▪ Through Aug. 2
▪ Amphibian Stage Productions
120 S. Main St., Fort Worth
▪ 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday