If you’ve seen Man of La Mancha or other wrenching adaptations of Don Quixote, you might have missed a key feature of Cervantes’ novel: it’s hilarious. In creating his Quixote Nuevo, playwright Octavio Solis and director KJ Sanchez have captured the book’s humor and transported it to a modern town near the US-Mexico border. The result is a fast-paced, bilingual romp that’s funny and touching enough to warm audiences, even in California Shakespeare Theater’s windy outdoor venue.
The new Don Quixote lives in a world where he battles drones and his most audacious exploits trend on Snapchat. Seeing his cobbled-together armor, passers-by ask whether he is Iron Man, or coming from a Game of Thrones party. This crusader “for the unemployed, the uninsured, the undocumented” roams the desert on his trusty tricycle, with his squire following in an ice cream cart. The modern setting heightens the absurdity of Quixote’s quest by making it clear how out of place he looks and acts.
Quixote (the brilliant Emilio Delgado) is a complicated character with flashes of self-awareness about his own delusion. He is a former literature professor “with a focus on Cervantes and his hero – me! … yes, I lectured on myself.” In his old age, he has developed dementia, which causes him to blur the line between fact and fiction, as well as to forget his name and family. He sees himself pursued by a jovial personification of Death (Hugo E Carbajal) and outlandishly attired, musically inclined spirits.
The beauty of the Quixote Nuevo is that its hero is easy to believe in.
Quixote’s quest finds continuity and pathos in his search for Dulcinea (Sarita Ocón). She is not only the ideal, eternally young woman he remembers from the cinema (as Death puts it, his “extra-virgin olive Guadalupe”) – she is a real person he met and loved in his youth. Despite his spotty memory, he cannot forget her. His impossible dream is to change the past, to erase a time when he failed to live up to his chivalric ideals and thus to avert tragedy.
Although Dulcinea’s story and a monologue of a disastrous border crossing prove heartbreaking, the overall mood of the show is upbeat and raucous. The spirits sport pill bottle bras and bandoliers and sing catchy Mexican-inspired music (composed by David R Molina and Eduardo Robledo) with recorded accompaniment by a variety of imaginative instruments, including sheet metal, conch shells, and bowed banjo. The ensemble switches characters—and even accents—mid-sentence, moving between the ordinary world and the world as Don Quixote sees it. Hardly a minute goes by without some form of childish play: dancing, running around screaming, baa-ing like sheep, and gleefully ringing tricycle bells.
The beauty of the Quixote Nuevo is that its hero is easy to believe in. He’s an old man, full of amnesia, self-doubt, and guilt. His quest is pointless, and often destructive. But he is fiercely loved by his family, neighbors, former students, and squire. May we all be so blessed.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne