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The Adventures of Don Quixote

Oak Park Festival Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote is one of those fat classics few have read. Yet everyone knows the book’s premise: mentally unstable Spaniard living centuries after the age of chivalry deludes himself into thinking he’s a knight of old and goes on a series of quests with his loyal but none-too-swift sidekick, Sancho Panza–and of course at some point in these crazy adventures Quixote tilts at a windmill.

What few people realize is what a rich, funny, complex novel it is. Actually, it’s two novels: the first part, published in 1605, was immediately popular, first with readers in Spain and later in France and England. In fact, the book was so popular that an unscrupulous rival took the characters and published a sequel, hoping to cash in on Cervantes’s luck.

Enraged, Cervantes wrote his own sequel, published in 1615, in which Quixote and Panza spend a lot of time bashing the writer of the unauthorized text. In fact, some of the humor in the second part comes from the fact that Quixote and Sancho are fully aware that someone has written a novel about their earlier adventures: they keep running into people who’ve read about them–and who are anxious to see and “admire” the ill-fated duo.

Dale Calandra’s new adaptation of both parts of Cervantes’s novel, now being performed by the Oak Park Festival Theatre, translates much of what makes the book great to the stage. Calandra, who also directs, doesn’t simply capture Cervantes’s commedialike physical comedy–though the sight of Henry Godinez as Quixote proudly putting a bowl on his head and calling it the finest helmet in the land is hilarious. He preserves the novel’s subtler tones: Cervantes’s darkly comic meditations on the human spirit, his heartfelt descriptions of Quixote and Sancho’s deepening relationship, his wise thoughts on fantasy and reality. Moreover, Calandra has gathered actors who know how to do comedy without overdoing it: Godinez, Gustavo Mellado as Sancho, and Dani Nichols, who plays multiple roles. But they can also play things straight and win the audience’s heart.

This unaffected simplicity is echoed in Calandra’s stripped-down production. Borrowing a page from outdoor Shakespeare festivals–which is what the Oak Park Festival Theatre is most years–Calandra re-creates Cervantes’s vast universe of fools, rogues, and thieves using a minimum of props, set pieces, and sound and lighting cues. Quixote’s horse, Rocinante, is signified by a sawhorse, and the famous windmill is suggested by two actors with large bladelike wings on their arms. It’s amazing how much of the world in Cervantes’s first book Calandra is able to summon up with just a lance and a helmet or an apt bit of music and the sight of Quixote and Sancho loping across the second level of the Festival’s two-tiered stage.

Not all the elements of the adaptation work equally well, however. The first act, based on Cervantes’s first book, is much stronger. The characters are more humorous, and the story Calandra distills from Cervantes’s sprawling work is much easier to follow. Of course, the first book is considerably simpler than the second: the characters are more clownish, and their motivations are easier to read. Much more of the plot is driven by the action. In short, the first book is better suited to the stage.

The exploration of reality and illusion in the second book becomes so baroque, and Cervantes’s desire to trip up the reader so mischievous, that some passages must be read two or three times to be understood. It’s very difficult to discover, for example, whether Sancho was really given an island to rule, and whether he was the wise and just ruler his subjects claim he was or totally unsuited to the job, as Sancho himself hints. Such complexity doesn’t work well on the stage–it almost doesn’t work in the novel–and a lot of the second act is incomprehensible unless you’ve read the original.

Still, the novel’s self-consciousness makes it remarkably contemporary, even postmodern. So does Don Quixote’s malady: he’s read so many chivalric romances that he confuses the reality of books with real life. Substitute movies, television, or cyberspace for chivalric romances, and you have a very contemporary kind of madness, explored in movies as various as The Stunt Man, The King of Comedy, and The Cable Guy.

And Cervantes’s approach to problems of perception is subtle: he skins this cat several ways. The earliest sections of the first part focus on Quixote’s mistakes: he believes an inn is a castle, the innkeeper is lord of the manor, and a couple of whores are ladies of the court. But as the novel progresses, Cervantes introduces other characters at least as kooky as Quixote–cranky curates, money-mad merchants, lovesick shepherds and the annoyed shepherdesses they pursue. None really has any stronger grasp on reality than our hero.

And fortunately Calandra’s flawed second act preserves the most interesting element of Cervantes’s sequel: the improvement in Sancho Panza, who seems to have become a better man thanks to his mad journeys with Don Quixote. It also retains the book’s marvelous depiction of Quixote’s illness and death–and the loss his friends and family experience. You’d have to have a heart of stone to watch Godinez’s Don Quixote slip out of this world–a world he never really felt at home in–and not be moved.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Adventures of Don Quixote theater still-uncredited.