An epic journey rendered in the space of a well-lit stage, Round House Theatre’s regional premiere of Quixote Nuevo (★★★☆☆) enchants and entertains, without delivering the knockout punch implied by playwright Octavio Solis’ poignant Don Quixote adaptation.
The show, directed by Lisa Portes, does hit with its delightfully versatile ensemble, evocative design on every front, and rich Spanglish-tinged storytelling that encompasses live Tejano music, puppetry, and arresting Dia de los Muertos imagery and styling.
Amid the haunting atmosphere of scenic designer Milagros Ponce de León’s pueblo porticos, the play offers timely takes on mental health, aging, and the ongoing conflict over immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Heavy issues are handled here with a light touch — lighter than the comedy at times, which is played broadly in some cases, though most deftly by Ernie Gonzalez, Jr., portraying the stable Sancho Panza to Herbert Siguenza’s mad Don Quixote.
A knight on a quest to fulfill a promise to his long-lost love, Quixote bumps into Sancho along the way and enlists the humble philosopher as his squire for the perilous journey. Quixote insists that he left his beloved Dulcinea on the other side of the border and he must return to her.
Only occasionally during his trek does the intrepid adventurer remember that he’s no knight. Quixote is, in fact, Jose Quijano, a literature professor in a border town, and Sancho is actually Manny Diaz, who sells paletas (popsicles) out of a bike cart he rides around the plaza.
Manny sticks with the spiraling Jose, known as Tio Joe to his niece Antonia (Jyline Carranza), merely to keep an eye on the old man as he pedals his trike — or trusty steed “Rocinante” — deep into the desert. Meanwhile, Antonia and her mom, Jose’s sister Magdalena (Isabel Quintero), lead the search party after Jose, with the intent of finally moving him into a home for assisted living.
So Quixote’s quest swerves into affecting cross-border romance, before reaching its ultimate destination as a drama informed by the playwright’s own experiences dealing with his mother’s dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
As a manifestation of Jose’s foggy psyche and increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, the visions of taunting, singing ghosts and a spectral chola Dulcinea (perfectly played by Sarita Ocón) are definitely effective. Dressed all in black, Papa Calaca (a dynamic Raúl Cardona) is the specter whose song might lead Jose/Quixote closer to truth, or further astray into the desert of dementia.
“Be young, till you’re old,” Quixote proclaims. That wisdom hits, too, along with composer David Molina’s ominous score and Alberto Segarra’s nimble lighting transitions. Portes and cast move the story beautifully between songs, dreams, reality, and the kaleidoscopic landscape of Quixote’s fantasies.
Siguenza’s leading turn navigates those turbulent shifts between passion and confusion, fearlessness and doubt capably if not profoundly. The play calls for us to see this courageous “knight” utterly exposed, stripped of armor, an ailing person in robe and pajamas struggling to hold onto his wits and independence. The depths of that struggle don’t register in the performance, which still is quite expressive.
Similarly, the puppetry, used to depict the love story of young Quixote and Dulcinea, reflects the atmosphere and expressiveness of the production, without fully transmitting the requisite emotion. They’re great-looking puppets, designed by Helen Huang, who also designed the costumes, but aren’t articulated enough in their faces or forms to convey all they’re meant to say. It’s a poetic limitation for the story of a bilingual lit professor losing command of his body and mind.
Quixote Nuevo in-person performances run through October 3 at Round House, 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda. Virtual performances via streaming-on-demand start Sept. 23. In-person tickets are $60-$78. Digital streaming access is $32.50. Call 240-644-1100, or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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