The don is 400 years young: Book-It mounts an exhilarating 'Quixote'

Oh, joy! Book-It's done it again - applied stage wizardry to a literary classic and created a theatrical evening to remember. "Don Quixote" erupts on stage with poignancy, satire, lunacy and comedy. It's a fitting tribute to one of the finest novels ever written on the occasion of its 400th birthday.

This is a road trip, but instead of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby we have the ludicrously paired Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza. Quixote is an elderly, slightly mad, minor noble who dubs himself a knight and pledges himself to the code of chivalry. The buffoonish squire is sensible enough to recognize Quixote's madness but optimistic enough to think that there might be something in it for himself.

The two set off, the don on a stringy nag, the squire on an ass. Quixote's quest is to right wrongs, protect the oppressed and pay homage to the lovely Lady Dulcinea. Along the way the pair encounters all manner of scoundrels and bizarre situations. Quixote, imbued with a sense of honor, battles the thieves and protects the fair damsels. The problem is that his madness gives him a curious take on reality.

The beautiful lady Dulcinea is a coarse pig farmer. The evil monster is a windmill. The lovely lady of virginal beauty is a prostitute. The barber's bowl is a golden helmet. Flocks of sheep are armies on the march. And so it goes.

The action is fast and furious throughout the first act. Encounter after hilarious encounter that Don Quixote interprets in his own crazy fashion, always wanting to do the right thing. Imagining that he is doing good. It's dynamic, it's funny and it's poignant.

The second act doesn't move as quickly. The nature of the Cervantes text presents a theatrical problem. Book II was written 10 years after the first book (the first act) in response to another author's appropriation of the characters. Cervantes, wanting to protect his intellectual property, created a second book in which he does more philosophizing and offers fewer adventures. Though rich in ideas, it's a letdown on stage after the vitality of the first act.

That said, the production overall is marvelous. The stagecraft is remarkable. Staging is one of Book-It's great strengths, and they've excelled once again. In this production we have an armada of sailing ships on an azure sea. The horse and donkey are playfully realized wooden props of amazing versatility. There's a naughty little sexual romp that is hilarious to grownups but would probably not be recognized as such by youngsters. The swordplay is good, and the acrobatics are terrific, particularly when Sancho Panza meets the enemies of his master's quest.

Stage magic depends on good lighting and good sound, and here again the production values are topnotch. Jessica Trundy is lighting director, and Nathan Wade composed the music and designed the sound. Kudos, too, to K.D. Schill, who fashioned costumes for wenches and ladies, for shepherds and priests, and who created the most knightly attire for our hero. Fay Jones' set design has many qualities of fine art.

First-rate staging deserves first-rate acting, and it got it. Gene Freedman is an elegant presence who admirably displays all the passion and pain of Don Quixote. Walter James Baker, who ably captures the contradictions of his character, epitomizes the Sancho Panza Cervantes wrote about. Wesley Rice makes a wonderful Cervantes and seems as delighted with the characters he's created as is the audience. Seven other cast members play a total of 27 roles. Their versatility and skill is outstanding.

Over the 400 years of its life "Don Quixote" has offered different meanings in different time periods. Initially it was seen simply as a comic novel. Years later, readers gave attention to its ethical messages. In times of strife, readers have seen it as a validation of the fact that individuals can be right even when their governments are wrong.

There are many themes that resonate today. Certainly we must pay attention to issues of integrity, honor and fair play, to the concept of protecting the weak. And of course there's the whole problem of self-deception. Danger lurks when a self-appointed hero imagines that everything he says is true.

Book-It's "Don Quixote" is a first-rate night in the theater. It provides a couple of hours of marvelous fun, and a whole lot to think about in the days after. Much of the credit goes to David Quicksall, who directed the production and also co-adapted the novel with Anne Ludlum.

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