So many elements are sublime in the world premiere production of Brenda Withers’ The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote at Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage. Director Matthew Earnest has put together a superb ensemble of local actors: Kitchen Dog star Jeremy Schwartz as Don Quixote, Cara Mia Theatre’s Ivan Jasso as Sancho Panza, Dallas Theater Center company member Christie Vela as Dulcinea, Uptown Players’ regular Bob Hess as the priest, and John Forkner, Nathan Smith and Steph Garrett in various supporting parts.
The look of the production is gorgeous, too. Scenic designer Sean Urbantke lets layers of the three-walled set peel away to reveal a green turf-lined box (without a front side) containing secret doors and windows through which actors and props appear and disappear. Via digital projections created by J.B. Felipe, flames lick the stage, flocks of birds flutter over the actors. Costumes, masks and gloves by Lauren Anderson Barbata, Jennifer Angus, Hannah Bennett, Jeff Semmerling and Leslee Nelson are works of textile art, painted with words and pictures, adorned with bits of origami and old buttons. Bicycles on rolling platforms become Quixote and Sancho Panza’s steeds. When Quixote battles a windmill, it is played by an actor wearing flapping canvas sails. These are beautiful inventions by props masters Vanessa Rohrer and Taylor Willis.
So why, if these aspects are so carefully and artistically rendered, is the play such a wheezing bore? The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights feels like it lasts several of each. The designers, it turns out, have created a better world for the play than it deserves. And the actors are consigned to struggle with Withers’ dry, nearly impenetrable script.
The writer, who has worked with Mindy Kaling and is connected with Harbor Stage (in Massachusetts) and Dartmouth College, has mined Cervantes’ 400-year-old fantasy and turned what made it a classic piece of lit into a tedious, disjointed two-act burlesque. The original and its many, many adaptations, including the musical Man of La Mancha, can be tiresome enough (so much talk of chivalry and heroic visions), but Withers’ version is stultifying. Dialogue drones into echoing mumbles. Scenes in which little or nothing happens lead to sequences that repeat words and phrases over and over, as if to drive the audience to the level of madness of the title character.
This new Quixote begins with the peasant farmer, Alonzo Quixano (Schwartz), lying motionless in a modern hospital bed under harsh fluorescent lights. Silently, his loved ones gather to say their goodbyes. Suddenly, he sits up, stands and leaves the room. He re-enters in different garb, a silver bowl as a helmet. He is in a dreamscape (this is where the walls fall away onstage) where he is a knight righting wrongs, seeking justice and chasing Dulcinea, a goddess with golden hair.
“I think her scent is intoxicating,” says Quixano/Quixote after meeting Dulcinea.
“I think that is the smell of turnip pies,” says his new companion Sancho.
No, it’s the sour reek rising from the pages of the script.
The second act begins with Christie Vela, plunked into a huge word-painted frock, singing the old Bessie Smith blues number “I’m Wild about That Thing.” This has nothing whatsoever to do with anything, but it’s the only part of the play that will command your attention, though it goes on a verse too long. The cast stands behind her playing ukuleles, guitar and triangle.
Then there’s another hour of the mirthless Quixotic Days to go. “Can you feel the adventure?” asks Don Quixote. No, sir. Not for a minute.
The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote continues through August 2 at Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S. Main St.,?Fort Worth, TX 76104. Tickets, $18-$38, at 817-923-3012 or amphibianproductions.org.