In modern-day Texas, Don Quixote rides gallantly once more. Accompanied by his squire, Sancho Panza, in pursuit of his lost love Dulcinea, he adventures throughout the land. Except Don Quixote is actually Jose Quijano (Herbet Siguenza), a retired literature professor in the haze of dementia, confusing real life with Cervantes’ novel. “Quixote Nuevo,” a recent play from Octavio Solis presented at the Round House Theatre, parallels the comedic romps of the original knight of La Mancha in the somber shadows of the U.S. immigration crisis and the indignities of aging to mixed success.
…rich with color, texture, and sound…a winning cast and vibrant production…
Solis’ framing of dementia deftly adds tension and stakes to the episodic nature of the Quixote’s escapades and reflects the anxiety around death that many interpret in the 17th century novel. Frightened by the possibility of moving into assisted living, Jose begins his quest, running off with his desperate and concerned family and friends in pursuit. This tragic premise complicates the absurd comedy throughout the show — should we laugh when Jose wears an old bedpan as a helmet, knowing that he is unwell and confused, knowing that his family loves and worries for him?
No knowledge of what’s often called the first modern novel is needed to follow “Quixote Nuevo,” but those familiar with the narrative arc of the book will find many familiar episodes transposed to a modern setting. The galley slaves become undocumented migrants and the iconic windmills become a high-tech surveillance blimp of the U.S. border patrol. Unfortunately, not all these transitions are smooth.
Manny Diaz (Ernie González, Jr.), a paletero who joins Jose’s fantasy as Sancho Panza, becomes the least coherent character when the modern narrative strains too hard to pay homage to the classic. Although Mr. González performs the role endearingly and comedically, Manny/Sancho becomes an enabler and accomplice when Don Quijote is actually a sad old man who, in the grips of delusions, repeatedly harms and endangers himself and others. Attempts to give him coherent motives fall short, leaving the character seeming more like a plot device than person and distracting from the real-world commentary the play aims to land.
Borders and immigration status weigh heavily, although some references to the Wall and Trump already seem dated in a show from 2018. However, plenty remains relevant as a border patrol officer demand papers. The largest immigration-related plot arc, following star-crossed lovers separated by a border, lands with less impact than perhaps intended but does provide opportunities to bring puppets into a play that was already rich with color, texture, and sound.
A facade of a once-grand Spanish-colonial-style house, now decaying with age much like Jose, twists and turns to become a karaoke bar, the desolate canyons of the desert, and the banks of a river that keep lovers apart. The music throughout feels unpolished but honest, like a campfire song. Clever costuming pulls together hubcaps and scrap metal to make Jose’s armor and helps the small cast step into many different characters. Particularly impressive is the versatility of actor Raúl Cardona, who transforms from the specter of death; Papa Calaca who stalks and taunts Jose; and Cardenio, a haunted and haunting man, bound to the barren and hostile Texas desert where his wife, son, and daughter’s journey north ended in tragedy.
With a script that flows between English and Spanish, non-Spanish speakers may feel they are missing out, but they should have no trouble following the plot. Well-timed for National Hispanic Heritage Month, “Quixote Nuevo,” feels ambitious in scope and execution. The script may occasionally fall flat, but a winning cast and vibrant production carries the audience along at Round House Theatre’s first show of the season.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Appropriate for ages 13+.
“Quixote Nuevo” runs in-person and virtually at Round House Theatre at 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814 through October 3, 2021. Get in-person tickets here and streaming tickets here. Round House offers numerous opportunities throughout this production to enhance your experience as an audience member. Please click here for more information. For COVID health and safety information, please click here.