2.5 out of 4 stars
Henry Godinez is an actor’s actor: wise, sympathetic, acutely responsive, with a fearless physicality. If I were a casting agent looking for a Don Quixote, he is the very first person I would call, so it is a great joy to see him tackle the character in Writer’s Theatre’s simple black box Gillian Theatre. It is exciting to see him hurl his body through space in Sanja Makakoski’s magnificent found art steampunk armor costume of Budweiser cans, pop tops and license plates. I only wish that Quixote: On The Conquest of Self, the sort of, kind of, one man show penned by Monica Hoth and Claudio Valdés Kuri, (Kuri also directs)was not so self consciously tilting at windmills of its own creation. I wish that someone involved in the creative process was harsher editor, because this script has so much thrown in that kept derailing any sense I had of story. Perhaps it’s me: the somewhat magical realism and time shifting conceits may not have translated from the original Spanish in a way that helps me wade through exactly what this script was trying to tell me, and I often forget that even if there are words there does not need to be a narrative. Activist theatre is not a common occurence on the American stage and so I may not have connected in the way that the playwrights intended. Translator Georgina’s Escobar’s roots in Theatre for Young Audiences give her translation the feel of an “educational theatre” production but I struggled to locate the thesis or attach myself to a throughline. The moral of the play is clearly to follow your dreams, but I left not even sure of that—perhaps it is more of the meme of the evening.
The show begins with a black space and a book: Godinez in the shadows, speaks. He is, as we begin, upside down, and we, like him, are disoriented. We accept that when he randomly opens his book, he is thrust into the time and place and action on the page. Like a character in search of, or in this case in conflict with,his Author,he brings us in to his world, and breaks the 4th wall, then he engages the audience, sometimes physically, like a stand-up comedian or magician asking for volunteers. He enlists hapless audience members as puppets to tell the tale of Cardenioand Lucinda. And then he asks the audience if anyone has read both books: the Ingenious Adventures and its sequel, and a fresh faced girl steps up from the row in front of me. Very quickly it is clear that she is a plant, Emma Ladki as Xochitl, named after the ancient Mexican (Nahuatl) word for flower. As the Don’s contemporary doppelganger, she speaks pig latin, and sets the Don’s motto:" Do good to all and evil to none", to dance which they perform, with jazz hands, together. She has her own book, a journal, and she is the Author, (some kind of reference to God here, and the death of God in modern times) and then there is talk that we are the Authors of our own destiny, but her random book openings set her in some horrible moments of violence where she is clearly not in control. It seems the only way we can save ourselves is to close the book? Or have someone close it for us? There is a diatribe against indolence and apathy, and then a revive Tinkerbell moment where we the audience are supposed to call out the causes we fight and would die for in order to revive Don Quixote. In our well-heeled Glencoe crowd, this fell a bit flat. It ends with me feeling like I have been to an innovative TED talk but I am not sure what my action step or conclusion should be.
My sense is that if this is a piece of art meant to reach back to a literary classic and give it fresh life, this work served to completely confuse me. If this is a work of activism theatre meant to inspire, then I needed clearer context- I can be a bit of a blockhead, so I ask that they throw me a dramaturgical bone. I came to resent that we were denied programs until the show is over so we don’t figure out that Xochitl is a plant. Background notes may have been the breadcrumbs I as an audience member needed. But the point of experimental theatre is to disrupt, and as I noted, I am fully willing to admit that maybe it’s me, that I am missing some crucial cultural reference background that would make this play clearer and more resonant. I will think about this show some more, and go back and reread my Cervantes. And maybe that in itself was what the play was trying to tell me.
Quixote: On the Conquest of Self is playing Tuesdays through Fridays and Sundays through December 17th, 2017 in the Gillian Theatre at Writers. 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe Illinois. For more information go to www.writerstheatre.org or call 847-242-6000.