Tuesday, May 20, 2008

*Man of La Mancha*: opening-night review (delayed)

An idealistic old knight asks his lady for her trust and a token of her favor; the whore responds by spitting on his quest and tossing him a dishrag. This face-off between Don Quixote and Aldonza exemplifies the conflict between face-the-facts realism and imagine-it-otherwise idealism in Man of La Mancha (at Spokane Civic Theatre through June 15).
Ever the idealist, Quixote (Patrick McHenry-Kroetch) caresses the dirty towel and pronounces it “gossamer.” Those who chuckled — and there were many in the opening-night audience — were probably thinking along the lines of “deluded old fool.” But McHenry-Kroetch’s persuasive line reading conjures the power of the imagination. If we don’t keep striving to break free of the muckheap we’re stuck on, Quixote seems to ask, then what’s a life for?
And yes, he steps up and delivers on the famous anthem that everyone remembers. Somehow he manages to combine a powerful baritone with tottering movements in "The Impossible Dream," showing us Don Quixote's vulnerability and stoic endurance in the same moment. When the tempo dwindles as Quixote contemplates being “laid to my rest,” McHenry-Kroetch lingers in repose for a moment before rousing himself to continue: resolute striving embodied in the song’s action. Galloping through the title song and holding his love-longing tight in “Dulcinea,” his performance ranges — often in the space of just a few moments — from feeble to virile, from despondent to aspiring.
Director Troy Nickerson devises some effective sequences: two stylized horses that appear out of nowhere; the way that Quixote gazes longingly at his Dulcinea and pursues her across the stage during a crowd scene; later on, a stylized rape sequence that while not ugly enough, didn't shy away from ugliness and human corruption, either.
While musical director Gary Laing’s ensemble sounded thin in the overture, it propelled the self-assertion of “It is I, Don Quixote” and provided a nicely understated, guitar-strumming introduction for an “Impossible Dream” that soon after soared.
Scenic and lighting designer David Baker bathes his Spanish dungeon in golden light at some junctures, then plunges it into ominous darkness. And his menacing drop-down staircase underscores the scariness of the Spanish Inquisition.
Nickerson's production contains many fine moments — the realistic/idealistic confrontations between McHenry-Kroetch and Tami Knoell as Aldonza, full of tension; the ensemble's energy as the costumes fly out of the trunk and the play within a play gets produced inside the prison; the pathos of the final sequence (Quixote's "death" and "resurrection"); the creepy magic of the Knight of the Mirrors episode, in which Gavin Smith’s bossy realist compels Quixote to see himself, really see himself.
But the conflict of practicality and imagination, so striking in the holding up of the mirrors, seems underemphasized elsewhere: The Civic’s *La Mancha* approximates the ideal, but it’s also, at several junctures, earth-bound. For one thing, Dale Wasserman’s book of the musical is so episodic that it prolongs the evening unnecessarily. Sure, it’s possible to explain what the scene with the padre hearing confession from two women was all about. But can anyone explain how the show would be harmed if it were cut? Similarly, the second act’s gypsy fantasia has Quixote repeatedly seeing the bright side of tawdry circumstances — which we’ve seen him doing before, repeatedly. It’s filler.
Nickerson settles for a jokey approach (slapstick muleteers, that goofball Sancho) that instead of pitting idealism against humans the way they really are, poses a debate between idealism and humanity's exaggerated silliness. Take the “it’s a shaving basin”/”no, it’s a golden helmet” sequence. Here and in the earlier praising of the kitchen trollop Aldonza, Quixote’s exaggerations are received with a kind of forehead-smacking “How can he possibly see things this way?” attitude. But what’s needed instead is more in the way of how Aldonza, being repeatedly told that she isn’t worthless at all but worthwhile, gradually is converted to Quixote’s hopeful perspective. The Golden Helmet of Mambrino is both valuable and ridiculous, and Quixote’s imaginings need to be seen through both sets of lenses.
In the early going, Knoell didn't seem to be in strong voice; later on, she wasn't bitter enough in spitting at Quixote's quest and damning humankind for the crime of being born. In “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip,” Gary Pierce fails to project melodies. Then he camps up Sancho Panza’s comic mannerisms so much that the sidekick seems planted on the side of the realists instead of ever coming over to his master’s idealistic point of view.

"Love not what thou art, but only what thou may become," says Don Quixote. Idealists get such a bum rap: Realists are always decrying them as impractical, when all practicality gets us is too much focus on all the things that keep us hemmed in. The tilter at windmills is like that inconvenient, bothersome voice inside all our heads that's always urging us to do better: Being quixotic can be obnoxious.
The Civic’s *Man of La Mancha* sounds and looks great. (They may have gotten a windfall of Renaissance costumes, but Susan Berger and Jan Wanless impressively built up all those slashed sleeves and floppy breeches.) In McHenry-Kroetch’s performance generally — and in the simple way Knoell renames herself, acceding to the old knight’s vision of Dulcinea — it creates some inspiring moments. A better production, however, would have demonstrated how gritty realism is merely jaded and self-limiting, and how idealism can become self-blinding. By playing up the impracticalities of Quixote's insistence on striving for a better life, Nickerson's show settles for humor when it could have contained a genuine debate.

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At May 20, 2008 2:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly saw more than humor on opening night.It was a beutiful,touching and thought provoking production.Bobo seems to have a bias against Mr. Nickerson's work.

At May 20, 2008 2:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

from partial review:

Very partial is RIGHT. And I don;t mean "partial" as defined by quantity. Again, Bowen... really?
I am not sure where your head is at this past year (or two). Is it because you want to direct or act?
All of you reviews (even the good ones) are always a lecture. Maybe you want to teach again? After reading your stuff from the year it seems as though you have no connection with what any of the theatrical artists in town are trying to accomplish and you must always write about what YOU think a show must be about based on YOUR interpretation or influence from past experiences/critics. Your line about idealism is way off. Self blinding? Did you stay to the end to actually get the message of this particular show or did you check out after the overture? Finally, the rape scene was one of the best staged sequences I have ever witnessed and I felt it was to the point, artistic and non-offensive. The civic theatre got the rape message across the right way for its audience.

At May 20, 2008 2:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to apologize to Director Nickerson and his cast,you all deserve better.

At May 20, 2008 2:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, Michael! You are almost as insightful as you think you are! Do you have a personal axe to grind with Troy Nickerson?

At May 22, 2008 1:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A tad insulting to initially refer to Ms. Knoell by last name only... Then proceed to describe absolutely none of the remainder of her 'Out-of-the mold, non-typical-sweet-character' performance.
All the amazing, sincere connections and moments she earned were either brushed aside, or were credited to other actors or to direction... Sheesh!
You must criticize, we realize, but PLEASE allow for some positives if they be there. And in her case THERE ARE PLENTY! I am afraid, in this case you've done her and the cast a disservice.
Thank you for your consideration.

P.S. Did you leave at intermission?

At May 22, 2008 1:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You missed the mark in so many ways on this, the most glaring of all not acknowledging Tami's amazing performance or the great job of all of the ensemble with both their voices and their acting. The Little Bird song was beautiful. The Padre's voice was incredible. The barber was so funny. The innkeeper & his wife, the neice & housekeeper, the muleteers. You missed them all. The audience didn't however. They were on their feet before the first cast members took their bow.

Bravo to the cast & crew of Man of La Mancha!! Boo to you, Mr. Bowen!

At May 23, 2008 10:41 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw the show last night,are you kidding me bowen? Great job guys.

At May 23, 2008 10:48 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You simply missed out.

At May 23, 2008 11:10 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually think Bowen has been auditioning for a role for Civic's main stage next season and at the rate he is going... he'll make the best Scrooge yet.

At May 23, 2008 2:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"settles for humor" how insulting.

At May 27, 2008 7:40 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe he would have liked it if Patty Duke was in it?


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