Man of La Mancha

man of la mancha

Why do you go to the theater? Or to the movies or to a comedy show or what have you? “To be entertained” is the common surface answer, but a deeper underlying reason could be to escape your life for an hour or two. Life may not be awful, but it’s always fun to have a little pretend time once in a while. Some people do it in their everyday life, like the characters in Man of La Mancha, currently playing at the Benedum presented by the CLO.

The show is a play-within-a-play, set in a dungeon somewhere during the late sixteenth century. Actor/author Miguel de Cervates is thrown into the dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition and awaits trial. While he waits his fellow prisoners decide to put him on a trial of their own in order to take his possessions. For his “defense”, Cervates decides to put on a show and act out his (unfinished) script of Don Quixote. Cervates becomes his title character while enlisting the other prisoners to join in and perform.

His story is as follows: an elderly man calling himself “Don Quixote” is on a quest to become a knight, despite the fact knights have not been around for centuries. He sees things other people don’t, such as giants that are really windmills, bowls that are helmets, inns that are castles, etc. He is a bit kooky but a romantic hero at heart. Ron Raines (from Guiding Light) does a stellar job in the role and lays it with an unending amount of heart. His belief and enthusiasm are infectious and his rendition of the show’s standard “The Impossible Dream” is nothing if not moving.

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Cervates enlists one of the female prisoners to play Aldonza, a barmaid/whore whom Quixote refers to as his beloved Dulcinea. Broadway actress Jackie Burns turns in a powerful performance here, both vocally and emotionally; her number “It’s All the Same” leaves a great first impression on the audience. Through the story we see Aldonza’s tough exterior break down, her despair replaced with hope, only to then get shattered. It culminates in her beyond-frustrated song “Aldonza”, where she angrily and tearfully begs Quixote to stop playing the fool.

Quixote’s squire Sancho is a loveable and optimistic chap played by Greg Hildreth. He just plain likes his “master” and isn’t as concerned or embarrassed by his behavior like everyone else is. Hildreth is good at getting big laughs at little things, whether it’s a hand gesture or a slick one-liner. Other strong supporting performances are given by Gavan Pamer, J. Anthony Crane, and Jeffery Howell as the various friends and foes Quixote has to deal with. The rest of the company does a great job, doing some sexy dancing and singing while clad in their semi-revealing prisoner clothes.

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While most everything in La Mancha is different from their last production (Mary Poppins), the most notable difference is the technical requirements. The entire play-within-a-play takes place in the prisoners’ pit, so there is no moving scenery except for a giant staircase that lowers in. The set is intimidating and lit eerily, a good setting for what is ultimately a dark story. One particularly well staged scene features a character’s physical and sexual assault. This ain’t no Disney stuff.

Having never read Don Quixote I’m not familiar with its themes (“Read a book!”). But what I took fromMan of La Mancha was that using elaborate fantasies to “escape” the real world is a part of life. Quixote’s world is inaccurate, sure, but much more exciting than what’s actually going on. Similarly, when the Inquisition causes a break in the action Cervantes explains to the prisoners the importance of not taking life at face value. Is his play a distraction for the “jury” of thieves? Sure. But it beats the alternative of sitting through a mock trial just to end up with the same result, so why not have a little fun while they wait?

This message can speak to theater and art in many ways. It’s not that you need to see light and fluffy shows as simple escapism; you can still see powerful pieces that can make you think or maybe make you feel sad. But not having that open mind and not just going about “normal” life all the time isn’t healthy, at least in Don Quixote’s eyes, so indulge yourself in a little fantasy now and then. Man of La Mancha, incidentally, is a wonderful production you can indulge in so why not start there?

Man of La Mancha

Presented by Pittsburgh CLO @ The Benedum Center

Directed by Marc Robin

Written by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh (music), Joe Darion (lyrics)

Designed by Howard Bay (scenery), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting), Patton Campbell (costumes)

Starring Rob Raines (Cervantes/Don Quixote), Danny Bevins (Pedro), Lindsey Bracco (Fermina), Jackie Burns (Aldonza/Dulcinea), Susan Cella (Housekeeper), J. Anthony Crane (Dr. Sanson Carrasco), Ixchel Cuellar (Maria), Tim Hartman (Captain of the Inquisition), Greg Hildreth (Sancho Panza), Jeffrey Howell (Governor/Innkeeper), Michael Misko (Barber), Gavan Pamer (Padre), Emily Trumble (Antonia) and ensemble: Ben Bogen, Ryan Cavanaugh, Lucas Fedele, Michael Graceffa, Kate Johnson, Evan Ruggiero, Joseph Sammour, and Blake Stadnik.

The show runs until June 28th. Tickets can be purchased here.

Performance Date: Tuesday, June 23, 2015