In case Don Quixote, the greatness of Miguel de Cervantes, and "Dul-cin-eh-aaaahhhh!" fly either above or below your referential radar, here's the setup for Dale Wasserman's Man of La Mancha: Spanish inquisitors have thrown Cervantes and his friend Sancho in the dungeon for foreclosing on a church.
The two have committed the sin of attempting to force governors to play by the same rules as the governed, and for this they will likely be killed. To add to their troubles in jail, their fellow prisoners set up a kangaroo court as a way to rob them of what little they have.
In an attempt to buy time and perhaps sing for their freedom, Cervantes transforms himself into that Knight of the Woeful Countenance, Don Quixote, and tells his comical/sorrowful tale of adventure and romance, which is all about how you have to see the saint in the prostitute and the Golden Helmet of Mambrino in the shaving basin if you want to get by in this awful world.
In the 1972 film adaptation, Peter O'Toole as Cervantes/Quixote stomps around a dusty landscape of his imagining with Wite-Out in his beard and a wizard hat on his head. But the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of this musical is different. Sad-different, but good sad. Or at least challenging-sad.
Director Allison Narver sets her Man of La Mancha in what looks like a contemporary black site crossed with a dungeon. A stories-high chain-link fence topped with razor wire reaches up to the rafters, recalling maximum-security prisons. Tall slabs of cement resembling the West Bank barrier form a wall across the stage. There's also medieval-looking, solitary jail cells the inmates wheel around, and every so often a guard disappears one of the prisoners.
The audience looks at this historical/contemporary/futuristic dungeon for the whole two-hours-with-no-intermission show. (Get it? Everyone is in prison. Sort of.) The set doesn't split open to reveal the wide-open, windmill-studded expanses of Don Quixote's mind. We're just always in the jail. Never not in the jail.
This is common staging for the show, and it emphasizes the story's main theme of the imagination's world-altering powers, but scene designer Matthew Smucker's postmodern incarceration hodgepodge suggests that storytelling might transport you outside prison walls, but it's not enough to knock them down. That is, the prisoners in this show may find some comfort in Cervantes's yarn—and that comfort is real and valuable and necessary and worthy as an act of survival—but the words bounce off the dungeon's walls.
By the way, at this very moment, this "dystopian prison" scenic design is pervading Seattle's houses of high art. Seattle Opera's innovative and highly recommendable production of Hansel and Gretel features a hauntingly gorgeous forest filled with garbage, which was designed by Keith Nagy. The clear-cut trees in the woods resemble prison bars, and at the end of the show, the children escape the witch but they load up their grocery basket with candy to take home, suggesting that they're still caught in the endless cycle of overconsumption.
In Seattle Repertory Theatre's A Raisin in the Sun, a brick wall designed by Michael Ganio descends from the sky, surrounds Lena Younger's house, and just stays there for the whole play, basically imprisoning the family, shutting them out of the American Dream despite the narrative's insistence that they're on their slow but steady way to achieving it.
To the extent that Seattle's stages reflect the city's worldview re: incarceration and oppressive systems, I'd say we have a pretty bleak one. I'll spare you the obvious 2016 election metaphors and just let them hover over this paragraph.
In any event, black actors play the lead roles in the 5th's Man of La Mancha, which explicitly frames the argument that the set is making in terms of Black liberation. I don't have to tell you high-information voters that the justice system jails a disproportionate number of Black and Latino people, nor that a number of scholars and filmmakers convincingly contend that this system represents a literal extension of slavery. The plantation is the police state is the pen.
And yet, the pure power and versatility of Nova Payton's voice makes a good argument for donning Don Quixote's rose-colored glasses as an act of survival on the part of the prisoners, and more generally as an act of appreciating what beauty we can in this grim world. Payton plays Aldonza (Dulcinea), a prostitute who Don Quixote courts as if she were a noble lady. She destroyed me during last year's production of A Night with Janis Joplin—her high notes were so clean the room sparkled every time she held them, and her control was insane. In this show she gives you all that, plus more charm, brass, and chattiness.
A few weeks before this production premiered in Seattle, Rufus Bonds Jr. took Don Quixote's corkscrew sword from Broadway veteran Norm Lewis, who had to drop out of the production due to "a scheduling conflict." Bonds was up to the task, if a little huffy between the bars of the showstopper, "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)."
Don Darryl Rivera's Sancho was another highlight, and if it weren't for Payton, he'd be the MVP. He had great comedic timing, total control of his erratic-seeming movements, and projected a kind of practical carefreeness that almost made me forget I was in prison.