Monday, November 25, 2019

Classics Without Inspiration: Quixote Nuevo and An Iliad

Emilio Delgado and Hugo E. Carbajal in Quixote Nuevo at the Huntington Theatre Company. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Octavio Sollis sets Quixote Nuevo, his updated version of Don Quixote, in Texas, substituting a town called La Plancha for Cervantes’ La Mancha. In this version, a co-production of the Huntington Theatre Company, Hartford Stage and Houston’s Alley Theatre – currently playing at the Huntington – the hero, Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), is a retired literature professor sinking into dementia who, as Don Quixote, rides around on a bicycle with the skull of a horse hoisted on the handlebars – the horse, when it was alive, was the companion of his lonely childhood – performing heroic deeds in the name of his muse, Dulcinea. His sister Magdalena (Mariela López-Ponce) and his niece Antonia (Sarita Ocon), who have been caring for him, chase after him in the hopes of getting him into assisted living; his other pursuers are his parish priest (Orlando Arriaga) and his therapist (Gisela Chípe). His Sancho Panza is Manny Diaz (Juan Manuel Amador), who drives an ice cream wagon and whose anxious wife (Krystal Hernandez) is also trying to track down the pair of fantastic adventurers.

It could be fun to see how the Latinx culture of the southwest might translate the familiar details of Cervantes’ great early-seventeenth-century picaresque, but Quixote Nuevo is agonizing to sit through. The carnival-style demons in Quijano’s head wear unimaginative costumes (by Rachel Anne Healy) as they form uninteresting patterns through Takeshi Kata’s set, and the acting falls into two categories: dull (like Delgado’s) and broad. Mostly they’re broad – so over the top, in fact, that instead of bringing the spirit of Mexican folklore to life, the characters come across as somewhat demeaning cartoons. Across the board this must be one of the worst acted professional productions I’ve ever sat through. And since the performers all have respectable credits, the fault has to be laid at the feet of the director, KJ Sanchez.

When the show isn’t straining to be hilarious, it goes to the other extreme, sinking into preachy melodrama. Quijano becomes the town hero when he takes the side of undocumented immigrants against the border cops, and it turns out that Dulcinea is a ghost from his past, a young deportee he loved and lost in his unhappy youth. Their courtship is played out in sentimental flashbacks that hark back to the creakiest platitudes of nineteenth-century theatre. There’s only one bright moment in the play’s interminable two-and-a-half-hour running time: early in act two the ensemble sings a lovely ballad. (The music was co-written by David R Molina and Eduardo Robledo.) The rest is as arid as the south Texas landscape.

Denis O'Hare in An Iliad. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I didn’t get much pleasure out of An Iliad, either, which ArtsEmerson imported for a brief run at the Emerson Paramount Center. It’s a solo performance of sections of Homer’s epic poem, adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May and featuring Denis O’Hare, a character actor whose work I’ve often admired. He strives mightily here, since he has to hold the stage for an hour and three-quarters without intermission with only one other person, the bassist Eleonore Oppenheim, sharing the space and without the help of any theatrical effects beside the music and Scott Zeilinski’s lighting design. Unfortunately O’Hare, who can be witty and inventive, doesn’t exhibit either of those qualities in An Iliad. He’s occasionally funny, he’s undeniably energetic, but I didn’t care much for most of his physical choices or his vocal ones; I found him tiresomely actorish. Most important, he lacks the single quality that the material demands above all others, grandeur. If he had that, all else could be forgiven; without it, I’m afraid, a dramatic rendering of The Iliad doesn’t seem to have a point.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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