Dreaming the impossible dream, Castaways Repertory Theatre debuted their production of Man of La Mancha on April 26th. Based on the classic novel Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes, this reimagining has Cervantes himself as a character, setting his story as a play within a play. Through his narration we see his erstwhile knight, Don Quijote, fight giants and find true love – or so he thinks. The Castaways struggled with technological hardships, but they gave the performance everything they had.
Carrying the show on his shoulders was Jim Mitchell, playing both Cervantes and Don Quijote. Mitchell had a beautiful operatic voice, though at times his enunciation left a little to be desired. His gestures and movements were very relaxed, almost too casual for a man who has lost his mind. However, compared with the antics and overacting of some of the ensemble, his sanity was refreshing. Towards the end, when Don Quijote has returned home in failing health, Mitchell’s frailty was very poignant. With such a large part of the show to carry by himself, Mitchell certainly rose to the occasion.
Sadly, the same could not be said of some in the ensemble. Ranging from high school age to seniors, some of them didn’t put forth their best effort. Their commitment to choreography was halfhearted, and although the setting was 16th century Spain, many chose to ad-lib, loudly, in today’s vernacular. Prisoners shouting “OMG” as Cervantes is brought before the Inquisition does shatter the illusion. With a little more commitment, they could have really sold the show, and made it better than it was.
A breath of fresh air in this production was the Governor, played by Brian Miller. The quasi-leader of the prisoners, the Governor also plays the Innkeeper who reluctantly knights Don Quijote. Miller didn’t seem to be pretending. He was always in the moment, and never went overboard just to get a laugh. Although his singing voice wasn’t the strongest, he sounded like he knew what the lyrics meant, and that he didn’t just want to sound pretty.
Trying too hard to be pretty seems to be the problem faced by the show’s lighting. Designed by Nancy Owens, the lighting rarely made sense for the situation. Because the company lacked a scrim, they instead used a regular curtain; so the lights would shift, creating weirdly distorted shadows. While Owens can’t be blamed for the lack of proper equipment, her lighting choices were sometimes not the most flattering. To show that the characters were outside, the backdrop was almost a vomit-colored-green, with a gobo of some flowers added in like an afterthought. Some effects were pretty cool, however. The gobo of bars for the jail cell would wave on the curtain, which gave the impression that sunlight was streaming in through them. And the transitions from the colorful world of Cervantes’ novel to the drab jail cell were pretty stark, which lent the play-within-a-play an element of magic.
Some of the most memorable characters were the smallest parts. Particularly, as strange as it sounds, the horses were one of my favorite parts. Played by Scott Morgan and Pat Jannell, these performers seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. Since they were playing prisoners who were only pretending to be horses, they got to have fun with their roles. When the gypsies entered and started to belly-dance, the horses joined right in! They added some much-needed levity to the production. There was also a senior gentleman, Jack Hopkins (age 93), playing Padre the priest. This being his first production, Hopkins should be commended for taking a chance, as well as for a job well done. He had a lot of quippy one-liners, and added a surprising amount of zing to his role. Hopkins seemed to be enjoying himself, and the audience was enjoying him too.
The Castaways … gave the performance everything they had.
Also enjoying himself was Don Quijote’s trusty sidekick Sancho Panza, played by Jonathan Faircloth. The role suited Faircloth perfectly; even though his voice could be shrill and his physicality was a bit cheesy, those choices are perfectly suited to the role of the bumbling manservant. Not quite as well suited was Aerika Saxe, playing Aldonza/Dulcinea, Don Quijote’s lady love. Though Saxe had a wonderful lower register, the part requires more of a soprano than she was capable of. That being said, her voice was very expressive, even more so than her face was at times. Though Saxe went through the motions of playing the “hooker with a heart of gold” role, she could have used just a little more commitment, a little more passion.
Some performers did have that passion, though. Scott Morgan, in addition to playing the horse, also made an appearance as a barber for a brief scene, and made a lasting impression. Even though at times he seemed to be shouting at the audience rather than singing, he did have a pretty good voice, and at least he used some vocal dynamics to give his part some aural variety. Morgan’s cameo was a refreshing highlight of the show.
There were a lot of things the Castaways Repertory Theatre company struggled with – their orchestra was lagging, their choreography (by Katy Chmura) was unimaginative – it involved a lot of marching in place. More time and a bigger budget would have also increased the quality of the costumes and props. On the surface, it was definitely a show that faced a lot of challenges. But every so often, an actor really stepped up and made an effort, and for a few seconds or minutes the audience would forget that they were in a tiny, badly-lit auditorium. Those moments were great, and if they had been more frequent the show could have been so much more.
Running Time: 2 hours ten minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: Some brief inappropriate language.
Castaways Repertory Theatre’s Man of La Mancha plays at the Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Building, 15941 Donald Curtis Dr. Woodbridge, VA 22191, through May 19th. For tickets, call 703-232-1710 or go here.