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400 years after he first tilted at windmills, the world still loves Don Quixote de la Mancha

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By DUTCH GODSHALK
dgodshalk@21st-centurymedia.com

@DutchGodshalk on Twitter

“And maddest of all: to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Those words, made famous by world-wearied and imprisoned poet Miguel de Cervantes in the 1974 film “Man of la Mancha,” might just cut to the heart of the popularity surrounding Cervantes’ iconic, mystifying main character, Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Cervantes first presented Don Quixote to the world in 1605. Jump forward a few hundred years and you’ll find a 1,000-plus page novel, a feature film, a long-running Broadway musical, countless television adaptations, a statue in Madrid, a sketch by Pablo Picasso and the word “quixotic” in the English dictionary.

This mad knight, bumbling and ridiculed, idealistic and woeful, has been tilting at windmills on the page, stage and screen for more than four hundred years – which begs the question, what is it about this Don Quixote fellow? How has he outlasted so many other fictional characters throughout history?

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For the cast of Act II Playhouse’s upcoming production of “Man of La Mancha,” Don Quixote represents something that every man and woman holds dear: the desire to exist in a better world.

“I think we all come to a point in our lives where we are intrigued by the idea of fighting for something greater,” said Maria Konstantinidis, who plays the beautiful yet troubled Aldonza. “And so this knight, this man who seeks for truth and goodness and beauty and hope — I think it’s something that lives within all of us.”

“In fact, (Don Quixote’s) a gentleman,” said the show’s director, Aaron Cromie. “He’s a chivalrous being, he is there to do what he believes is the right thing. Even though he’s laughed at and he fails constantly, I think there’s a dignity in his madness that people inherently love and allow for.”

For those unfamiliar with the story, “Man of La Mancha” centers on a warped old man who becomes so engrossed in medieval novels that he convinces himself that he is a knight, and he takes to riding the countryside, defending the helpless, however clumsily.

“He’s the ultimate fan boy,” Peter Schmitz, who plays Quixote in the production, said. “He’s like those guys who go to conventions and are having the time of their lives dressing up like Gandolf” – except, for Quixote, the masquerade is the reality.

Schmitz seemed like he’d been preparing for this role his entire life. Sitting at a table on the second floor of the playhouse in shoddy armor and a weathered tunic, the actor had the right goatee, an excellent blend of exuberance and gravitas, and a shockingly detailed knowledge of author Miguel de Cervantes. And it seems all of this speaks to the actor’s adoration for the Don.

Maria Konstantinidis stars as Aldonza/Dulcinea in Act II Playhouse's production of "Man of La Mancha." Photo by Bill D'Agostino.

Maria Konstantinidis stars as Aldonza/Dulcinea in Act II
Playhouse’s production of “Man of La Mancha.”
Photo by Bill D’Agostino.

“No matter how many times he gets beaten down, he just picks the joy right up and accepts the circumstances he is given,” Schmitz said. “He gets right back on the horse and goes at it again. And everyone can identify with that … That’s why we still love Don Quixote, because even though he’s a middle-aged man with supposedly nothing to look forward to — he’s poor, he’s got no wife, no kids — he says, ‘You know, I have my imagination and I have my joy.’ ”

In many ways, staging such a beloved musical is a privilege. In other ways, it’s a challenge. Winner of five 1966 Tony Awards, “Man of La Mancha” is one of history’s most well-known Broadway shows. The test for a cast and crew then is to find a slightly new voice with which to tell the classic tale.

“(Act II Artistic Director) Tony Braithwaite invited me to direct here because he’s familiar with my interest and my ability and my proclivity, passion, desire — whatever it is — to find a new way to tell a familiar story,” said Cromie.

This version of “Man of La Mancha” will have a cast of 10 actors playing more than 40 roles throughout the show — but that’s not all. “The cast itself was hired not just because they’re great actors and singers but because we’re all musicians,” said Sonny Leo, who plays Sancho Panza as well as serves as the show’s choreographer and vocal director. When not delivering lines, the actors retreat to the margins of the stage, picking up violins, cellos, glockenspiels, toy pianos and melodicas.

Cromie said the choice to have the actors do it all will create a more unique experience for the audience.

“We’ve got a very intimate theater here,” he said, “and ‘La Mancha’ is a vast, gigantic score, and so the preparation goes to me considering how we make such an epic story be the right size for this venue … It’s so specially considered for this space, this audience and the vibe of coming in here.”

Making use of this intimate venue, the production paints a bleak, oppressive image of the world — with plot points involving government imprisonment, intolerable cruelty and prostitution — and entombs the audience within it. But then Don Quixote sallies forth to offer his view of “life as it should be.”

And, really, that’s what’s so attractive about the Don. He gives the audience a glimpse of the world as he sees it. “The whole point of the play is that our imagination eventually makes reality better,” Schmitz said. “(Don Quixote) says, ‘I have this wonderful dream and I invite you to share it.’ It’s not a closing off of reality but an open invitation to a limitless imagination.”

Here Schmitz gets to the heart of a 400-year-old hero’s continued appeal. Don Quixote imagines a nobler way of life; he envisions a kinder, better world. And, to this day, audiences line up for the opportunity to sit for a little while and spend some time within that impossible dream.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Man of La Mancha”
WHEN: From April 29 through June 8.
WHERE: Act II Playhouse,
56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA 19002.
TICKETS: Tickets range from $28 to $39.
INFO.: Check www.act2.com or call (215) 654-0200.

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