A Noise Within Delivers a Story You Should Hear
Have you seen Man of La Mancha yet?
By Courtney Blackburn
Closing this weekend, the opening shot from A Noise Within’s 2018-19 Season is a can’t-miss. Even if you’ve seen the 1972 film adaptation starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, you’ve not seen Man of La Mancha. Not truly. Not as it connect to who we are as a culture today.
You see, there’s something universal about the best plays. That’s why Shakespeare can be performed in a park or at the Globe, and played out in countless plots from Hollywood to the latest thriller. The same is true of Man of La Mancha, first staged in 1965 and based on the 1600-era Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes.
This version is set in a modern prison. The prisoners wear jumpsuits; the setting is industrial and cold, stripped of the lingering warmth of a Spanish setting. Ladders, bars, and black bags litter the stage. Coughs and murmurs and faint cries linger uncomfortably in the air. The Inquisition is now.
The musical starts with a fanfare; given authentic folk sound by the orchestra above the audience, hiding in the darkened balcony. The lights facing the stage brighten to a rich orange. Suddenly, a man descends, lowered unexpectedly from the ceiling into the prison below. This is Don Miguel de Cervantes (Geoff Elliott), a failed playwright, whose fellow prisoners quickly and noisily surround him, demanding all his possessions and then putting him on a mock trial alongside his faithful servant (Kasey Mahaffey). They’re wry and spot-on; each man and woman on stage well-adjusted to the reality of the terrible situation they’re in. The dialogue is snappy; the audience can’t help but chuckle in spite of themselves.
Cervantes, whom we’re told landed in the Inquisition for foreclosing on a Catholic monastery, decides to act out his own failed play for his self-proclaimed judges: that of a country gentleman who, having read too many books and inflamed his brain with chivalric ideals, declares himself a knight-errant named Don Quixote and sets off with his servant Sancho Panza to slay giants that are actually windmills. Along the way, he meets a gimlet-eyed kitchen worker named Aldonza (Cassandra Marie Murphy), whom he dubs his lovely lady, “Dulcinea.” Cervantes’ fellow prisoners play the roles he assigns them, getting more and more involved in the fantasy. Don Quixote’s family first worries over him, then tries to have him committed; Aldonza first laughs at him, then grows fond of him, then breaks down violently as a vicious assault – very realistically choreographed and executed, and uncomfortable to watch – shatters the illusions the old knight had painted for her.
Ultimately, though, the tenacity of hope gets to them all. Through their play-acting, each and every character becomes stronger and more resolute, ready to “Dream the Impossible Dream” and face the dark world outside…and the torture chamber right out of sight. You can see it in their bearing, in the way they turn their chins and straighten their shoulders. Every single performer is dedicated to this transformation, and pulls it off beautifully, effortlessly. By the end, when Aldonza, made a new woman, begs Don Quixote to remember her and rejoin the quest, there wasn’t an untouched heart in the building, cast member or audience.
The musical ends on a warbling triumphant note, with the players singing “The Impossible Dream.” For as Cervantes says in Act I before casting himself aside and becoming Don Quixote, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
lights come up, and the audience remembers that this is just a madcap musical while giving a standing ovation – or is it? As the players take their bows, they seem to still be who they were just moments before – the prisoners, the dreamers, and the newly knighted ready to go out into the world, with just a twinkle of madness in their eyes.
As an acclaimed classical repertory theatre, A Noise Within is no stranger to period pieces. This Man of La Mancha didn’t come about from an LA improv group doing a “minimalist” production because it’s easier to pull off. No; every choice made in the staging of this musical was deliberate, from the decision to have no intermission, helping the audience to feel as trapped as the group of detainees on the stage, to the decision to have the character of Aldonza wear yellow rubber gloves while she scrubs the floor with a rolling bucket, telling us exactly who she is our society.
“Though many often associate Man of La Mancha with elaborate set pieces and fanciful costumes,” explained director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, “Its earliest stagings were sparse, encompassing the spirit of a rag-tag band of prisoners putting on a play with found objects….The modern-day setting – a bleak, destitute ‘holding tank’ for prisoners – is intentional. Reminiscent of third-world prisons and military detention centers, and populated with empathetic characters, I want this La Mancha to feel personal to our audiences. The stakes are real, and I want the transformation from hardened criminals to true believers to be palatable to our audiences. “
The Pasadena stage belongs to the tender wistfulness of the old dreamer Don Quixote, played to distracted, wilting, off-the-walls perfection by Geoff Elliott, and the powerful presence, electrifying voice, and broken-yet-hopeful soul of Cassandra Marie Murphy’s Aldonza. Kasey Mahaffey as Sancho Panza provided much-needed levity and a good deal of heart, anchoring the trio of star performers.
With America seeming to close in on itself in recent years, it’s important to let the right stories in – the ones that help us remember what’s vital to being human. Man of La Mancha is exactly that.
Tickets for Man of La Mancha start at $25 and are available online at www.anoisewithin.org and by calling (626) 356-3121.
Friday, Sept 7 at 8 pm
Saturday, Sept 8 at 2 pm
Saturday, Sept 8 at 8 pm
Sunday, Sept 9 at 2 pm
Next Offering from A Noise Within:
A Picture of Dorian Gray
September 23-November 16, 2018