How can a story be hailed as the first modern novel—and then be so ahead of its time it becomes the first postmodern novel? Well, Cervantes did it in1605. This month I traveled back in time 400 years, to a time when the curtain was closing on knights, chivalry and quests, into the mind of Cervantes. My husband and I were lucky to see the U.S. premiere of a new adaptation of Don Quixote, performed by the Marin Shakespeare Company of San Rafael. There’s still time to catch this premiere, as it runs through August 30th.
Interestingly enough, Cervantes’ views don’t seem much different than the prevailing concerns of today. Our search for love, meaning, friendship, our desire to be understood—it never seems to change. Our human experience, it turns out, is timeless still, even with the advent of space stations and email.
As we sat at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater, the sun began to set behind the oak trees. I was grateful for the pleasant summer weather and the cushioned seat we purchased (only $1!). The play began, and nearly at once I understood that there was going to be a golden nugget of truth for everyone in the audience. Poignant, poetic and playful, the play covered it all.
When asked to adapt Don Quixote, playwrights Peter Anderson and Colin Heath might have thought they were engaging upon a task as futile as Quixote’s quest for love, but they did it! Perhaps visited by a muse, perhaps privy to some ancient writer’s spell, but somehow they took what is hailed as the best literary work of all time (a work that also helped cement the modern Spanish language and inspire Shakespeare), reduced it by 1300 or so pages, and turned it into a play.
The originality of this new adaptation was also achieved by mask maker David Poznanter, who studied with internationally renown mask maker Matteo Destro in Italy. After making a positive mold of each actor’s face, Poznanter hand-crafted 25 theatrical half-masks out of paper mache. The magic of masks enabled five actors to play 15 characters!
“The actor’s face should disappear so that the character is able to emerge—that’s the magic,” said Poznanter about his masks.
The masks, whimsical, comical, and sometimes tragic, greatly contributed to the theme, “What is fantasy, and what is reality?” The director also had them reacting to situations like puppets would—with exaggerated expected responses of “ooh,” “aah,” and “oh.” At times, I imagined them puppets on a stage, just like Shakespeare described life in Macbeth. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Shakespeare was undoubtedly influenced by Cervantes, as Don Quixote was widely read and reprinted in Italian due to its popularity. Both writers wrote during the same time and died within a month of each other.)
The minimalism approach to props also left me questioning reality. Was the horse supposed to be real or was it simply a pole with an inverting watering can balancing on its tip? Had Quixote already lost his mind that far? Were the sheep pillows or were they really sheep? Were the windmills merely ladders or really windmills? Hmmm.
Poznanter also has a background of working with Cirque de Soleil as a circus artist and performer. In fact, the circus may have inspired the Don Quixote performance on many levels, since both playwright Colin Heath and award-winning actor Ron Campbell have played clowns in Cirque de Soleil Kooza productions.
Campbell was excellent in his portrayal of Quixote, providing a great sense of timing and stage presence. We were able to sympathize with Quixote, and even “see” into his imaginative visions. Campbell delivered the beautiful poetry of Cervantes equally as well as he did the bawdy, earthy humor. Special mention should also be made to Sonoma county native actor Rick Eldridge. Eldridge played many roles—and played all of them well!
Perhaps the truest magic for me was when sidekick Sancho Paza lamented for the death of Quixote’s dreams, dreams that Paza steadfastly supported until he believed in them too. John Lewis played Paza, and gave a poignant portrayal of true friendship. It was heart-felt and sweet to watch Paza’s dedication to someone else’s dream, and the depth of his compassion.
If you can’t make the premiere of this new adaptation of Don Quixote, be sure to catch Richard III, from September 5th to the 27th. I hope to see you there!
This year marks the 26th year of the theater company performing under the summer stars. But that’s not all they do. The Marin Shakespeare Company has an extensive outreach program, offering acting classes to public elementary schools and at risk teenagers. Their Social Justice program provides acting classes to incarcerated men, culminating in a Shakespeare performance.
When you visit, be sure to plan a fabulous picnic, as picnics are encourage one hour before the show. Snacks can also be purchased at the Theatre Cafe. Warm clothing and blankets are recommended for evening performances. Padded seats for the wooden pews can be purchased at the Theatre Cafe for just $1.
For more information or to book tickets, visit http://marinshakespeare.org or call 415-499-4485. Forest Meadows Amphitheater is located at 890 Belle Avenue, Dominican University of California, in San Rafael.
ts, visit http://marinshakespeare.org or call 415-499-4485. Forest Meadows Amphitheater is located at 890 Belle Avenue, Dominican University of California, in San Rafael.