Despair and cockeyed optimism sit side by side in the same grungy prison cell in Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's production of Man of La Mancha for A Noise Within. That duality is par for the course in Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh, and Joe Darion's much-beloved musical inspired by the tale of Don Quixote. Given the contemporary overlay of Rodriguez-Elliott's production, we conjure up not the late 16th century where the play is set but a holding cell in some present-day third world rat hole. Introduce a pair of cuckoo dreamers like Geoff Elliott and Kasey Mahaffy into the proceedings, and the grunge falls away. Even the most hard-bitten con might be persuaded to pick up a prop and join the revels.
Elliott is every inch that dreamer. Playing both the imprisoned author Miguel de Cervantes and the delusional Quixote, the hero of Cervantes' tale in La Mancha's play-within-a-play, Elliott is the production's moral touchstone. It's a responsibility he bears gamely and relinquishes graciously to Cassandra Marie Murphy when it becomes time for Murphy's soiled and broken Aldonza to pick up the dreamer mantle and belt out some showstopping tunes of her own. With the dexterously humorous Mahaffy on hand to deliver Cervantes/Quixote's servant Sancho Panza, La Mancha's triumvirate of idealism stands at the ready. A shape-shifting and quite versatile ensemble, aided by music director Dr. Melissa Sky-Eagle's band, provides the backup necessary.
The entire action of La Mancha takes place either in a prison or within the imagination of a doomed man. Cervantes knows the Inquisitor will soon be summoning him and that his fellow prisoners are about ready to rob him blind and probably beat him to smithereens. So he uses the only resource at his disposal — his skills as an actor and playwright — to stage his own trial. The leader of the prisoners, a man called the Governor (Gabriel Zenone), agrees to let the story play out for as long as it remains interesting, and all of the prisoners become players, most of them enacting roughnecks and brigands.
Cervantes enacts Quixote, a country squire-turned-knight who takes leave of his village (and his senses) on a quest to right all worldly wrongs. This most errant of knights sees windmills as giants, mistakes inns for castles, and insists on making the inn's slatternly kitchen wench Aldonza his lady Dulcinea. "Why do you call me that?!" demands the outraged Aldonza, recognizing that her chaste wooer is bonkers. "That is not my name!" She'll eventually understand. The hopefulness of Cervantes/Quixote, Sancho, and Aldonza gets so severely tested that by the time we hear the much-anticipated singing of "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)," we are more than ready for it.
A remount of ANW's 2007 production, this La Mancha is similarly bare bones, employing a small orchestra and few props or set pieces. It keeps the narrative focused and urgent, clocking in at just under two hours. Items like umbrellas, tarps, a rolling ladder, and mops are artfully deployed. Indeed, Rodriguez-Elliott is particularly deft in her staging of larger ensemble numbers like "Golden Helmet of Mambrino" and "The Knight of the Mirrors." As they are menacing poor Aldonza, Rodriguez-Elliott's rough-and-tumble group of muleteers beautifully sing the lullaby-like "Little Bird, Little Bird."
Elliott, who headlined the 2007 production, has plumbed new depths with Quixote. As both a blessed-out Quixote and a thoughtful and terrified Cervantes, the actor is in complete control. Mahaffy laces Sancho with a breezy, can-do energy. This dimwitted peasant probably doesn't know any better than to follow a madman but seems quite content all the same. Zenone's Governor is smartly menacing and, in Quixote's tale, gets some good laughs out of the innkeeper's exasperation. A tattooed and hairnet-wearing Murphy cracks open Aldonza's hardness to reveal a woman who is emotionally dead until she meets Quixote. Clearly, this Aldonza can handle the boys, but allowing herself to imagine a better life is a more difficult assignment. Her take-no-prisoners rendition of the whore's anthem "Aldonza" is an exposé of fury and pain.
All in all, the production is a winner, and the company's trip back to La Mancha is a most dreamy experience.
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