Just a stage he was going through? Evidently. Off-Loop auteur Blake Montgomery has announced that he’s done with the Building Stage, the near-west-side troupe he founded eight years ago. It’s supposed to shut down at the end of April, after the run of the current show—a delightfully loose yet sharp, deconstructive riff on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, called Dawn, Quixote. Says here Montgomery intends to “follow new theatrical and educational pursuits.”
That would be a bittersweet thing, if it happens. Encouraging, on the one hand, to think that the smart and talented Montgomery plans to investigate alternate means of expression; sad, on the other, to realize that this specific means will be no more. I’ve admired the Building Stage since the first piece I saw there, back in 2006. Titled Dustbowl Gothic, it exploded Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic into a tender, tortured narrative. As I wrote at the time, Montgomery used “everyday movement, economical metaphors, and simple music to create something delicate, funny, unexpected, true.” Most of the productions that followed offered similarly sweet subversions of other classics—most notably Moby-Dick.
But I’m not convinced that the theater is really going to close.
It’s my theory, based entirely on wishful thinking, that all this end-of-the-road talk is a clever—and, yes, deconstructive—hoax, designed to lend a special resonance to the core theme of Dawn, Quixote: the end of self-delusion, the beginning of wisdom.
As everybody knows, Cervantes’s novel is a two-part, 400-year-old, tragicomic picaresque about a Spanish gentleman of leisure whose life takes a very unusual turn as he closes in on his 50th birthday. Deeply immersed in the literature of chivalry, this gentleman (named Quixada or Quesada or, perhaps, Quexana—Cervantes makes it a point of controversy) takes to reading so much that his brains dry up and he goes crazy. His one and only symptom is a doozy: styling himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, he resolves to roam the countryside as a knight errant and right wrongs in the name of his lady—the chaste, beautiful, and pretty much imaginary Dulcinea.
And so he does, at first alone and then in the company of his ersatz squire, Sancho Panza. But madness sabotages the aging fantasist’s every noble gesture. His adventures aren’t mere follies but, often enough, small disasters with awful consequences. It’s more than a question of tilting at windmills. People get hurt, Don Quixote himself very much included.
The way Montgomery and his ensemble tell it, Cervantes’s tale might easily be understood as a 90-minute allegory for the lunacy of undertaking an artistic enterprise—like, say, a theater company. Like, say, a theater company called the Building Stage. The set consists of properties from old shows (many of them for sale, by the way). There are racks of costumes, shelves filled with shoes, chairs, pictures, toys, small appliances, knickknacks. A piece of the house from Dustbowl Gothic sits downstage left. A miniature ship, presumably from Moby-Dick, can be seen high up on the back wall.
In another echo of that Moby-Dick, which featured multiple Ishmaels, Quixote is played collectively by a half-dozen actors, each of whom wears a gray wig and beard as well as a black doublet. They play out sly jokes that reflect on the more narcissistic aspects of the creative process—taking three days, for instance, to name Quixote’s nag and another eight to come up with the title character’s own nom de guerre.
The six Quixotes sing Pamela Maurer’s often lovely songs. They split off and rejoin the group. They dramatize themselves, compete, fall into despair, and give comfort. They make promises that they don’t recognize as unrealizable. They commit minor crimes. Their fever dream starts to exhaust and wound them. And then the fever breaks.
I suppose Dawn, Quixote may be Montgomery’s The Tempest. Or at least, his version of “Solsbury Hill,” the 1977 song in which Peter Gabriel explains, in metaphor, why he found it necessary to leave Genesis. Montgomery lays it all out with a humor and grace that make you wish the show’s valedictory message were just what I’m hoping it is: an elaborate ruse. Gabriel Franken, Michael Hamilton, Chelsea Keenan, Kate Suffern, Anne Walaszek, and Nathan Wonder perform with casual fluency and precision as the Quixotes; Walaszek’s wildly expressive left eye practically constitutes a seventh cast member. We’ll have to see them elsewhere next time.