Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
KNOW Theatre launched its new season last weekend (Sept. 13-15) with a rare musical, Man of La Mancha, which was groundbreaking when it debuted in 1965. With a book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, it continues to make an audience both laugh and think. Case in point: This current production under the able direction of Scott Fisher and through the considerable talents of its various actors.
KNOW’s set is minimalist but effective, portraying a grim dungeon in Seville in the early 1600s, where a motley assortment of petty criminals and troublemakers await the pleasure of the Spanish Inquisition. Various little dramas play out as the prisoners go about daily routines: a woman repulses a man’s amorous advances, two rogues throw dice, a thief steals food from another’s stew pot and an old man tries to sleep amidst the squalor and noise.
A lone guitar, which Joe Hoffman plays with style and feeling, brings the only joy to the dismal environment. At several points in the play the cast uses palmas, the rhythmic hand clapping or percussion that accompanies flamenco guitar, which also adds authenticity to the set. Limited props, whether a leather donkey head or a twisted sword, are used with great result.
Into their midst comes Miguel de Cervantes, brought to vivid life after four centuries by Tim Gleason, who puts aside his job as KNOW’s artistic director to take on this challenging role. As one of the most gifted actors in the region, what he lacks as a singer is more than made up for by his quiet, persuasive manner as he fleshes out both Cervantes, who lands in prison due to his having acted on the belief that “the law says everyone is equal,” and his slightly crazed alter ego, Don Quixote.
Both characters seek to bring right where there is wrong in the world, and that theme underlies the classic story of knightly misadventures. As Cervantes, Gleason quickly wins over the threatening crowd of miscreants with his self-deprecating humor and sincerity. These unfortunates take obvious delight in the roles they adopt as he recounts the tale in his own defense in their kangaroo court. When Gleason adds makeup to his hair and face, straps on armor and proudly hoists a lance, there stands the iconic figure of Don Quixote, knight errant. Gleason makes both men believable in their own realms of existence through his acting artistry.
Eric Bill as Sancho Panza is a comic treat who quotes proverbs at every turn as he fulfills the role of squire, which consists mainly of picking up the battered and bruised knight after yet another mishap in pursuit of “The Quest.” His two solo songs are both amusing and tender in their honest affection for his delusional master. Bill brings a kindly humanity to the quintessential sidekick role.
Maureen Dancesia as Aldonza, the kitchen maid of easy virtue whom Quixote idolizes as his lady Dulcinea, does a particularly fine job in her character’s transformation. Not only does Dancesia have a lilting voice that blends sweetness with strength, but she makes us believe her character truly does change from cynic to idealist, not an easy task given the extreme situations Aldonza faces. The brutal treatment from the muleteers, which she suffers after going to nurse them following the fight with Quixote and Sancho, does not prevent her from ultimately becoming Dulcinea in her own eyes as well as her knight’s.
The play constantly asks its protagonists consider questions of reality, harsh and cruel, as juxtaposed with what could be if they were their better selves. However foolishly he acts, Quixote has an inherent nobility in pursuing “The Quest.” as summed up in the show’s most famous song, “The Impossible Dream.” Gleason portrays this quality with dignity and honesty throughout the play.
The “play-within-the-play” format gives the ensemble members many opportunities to showcase their collective talents. Annie Graham and Laurie Brearley give strong vocal performances as Quixote’s niece and housekeeper, respectively. Nick Ponterio shows the iron fist in the velvet glove as the menacing Dr. Carrasco/Duke, a man who is never too obvious in his malevolence but is ready to take advantage of a foe’s weakness. William Snyder brings a down-to-earth quality to the Innkeeper, who tries to humor all the knight’s outrageous demands.
There are numerous examples of clever physical humor, such as when Quixote battles a giant that somehow morphs into a lowly but formidable windmill, or the scene in which an itinerant barber, played by a lively Joshua Sedelmeyer, relinquishes the Golden Helmet of Mambrino. He thought it was a mere shaving basin — who knew? We welcome the laughter as we know the underlying premise is as solid as “holding moonlight in your hands” — that is, nothing at all.
Man of La Mancha, a true “golden oldie” of the American musical theater, is a solid seasonal debut for an already well-respected theater company. Audiences will remember what they liked about the original and how much there is to enjoy in its reprise.
IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre (74 Carroll Street, Binghamton) will present Man of La Mancha Sept. 19-29. Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m.; Sundays are at 3 p.m. This Thursday’s performance is pay-what-you-can. Tickets are $25 (seniors, $20; students, $15). Go to knowtheatre.org to purchase tickets. Note: Several performances already are sold out.