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Don Quixote — Hedgerow Theatre

untitled (91)More because of “Man of La Mancha” than from oodles of people reading the Miguel de Cervantes classic from cover to cover, “Don Quixote” is one of the most familiar icons from literature. Everyone pictures him tilting at windmills and from the famous Picasso pen-and-ink drawing of the mounted knight and his squire, Sancho Panza, in mid-battle.

Hedgerow Theatre director Jared Reed makes shrewd, keen-eyed use of Picasso’s images in present Keith Dewhurst’s fanciful, impressionistic adaptation of Cervantes’s masterpiece.

This is a production that almost has be taken scene by scene. Brian McCann, as Quixote, and Zoran Kovcic, as Sancho, are excellent throughout, McCann capturing the right percentages of senility, madness, bravado, and romance, and Kovcic being a humorously wary and wryly commentating sidekick who would rather have adventures with the addled Quixote than stay at home and be badgered by his wife Teresa. By the offstage voice employed to  represents that spouse, no one can blame him.

While McCann and Kovcic are entertainingly working as a team of their characters, a lot goes on the background. Here is where Reed’s production becomes hit and miss. Some sequences work beautifully, such as the worry Susan Wefel expresses as the housekeeper to Don Alonso Quijana, the man who becomes the knight errant Don Quixote at whim, or the arrival an inn where Devon Walls and Wefel play innkeepers befuddled by Quixote’s insistence they reside in a castle where he is a guest and, therefore, should be housed as a tribute and not expected to pay for hospitality. Brock D. Vickers also has strong scenes in which he plays villains and raisonneurs and lusty men from the Spanish pampas.

Sometimes, especially in the first act, the ensemble’s actions become chaotic and unorchestrated, so you don’t know where to look or what’s going on. Scenes descend into running and shouting that doesn’t register comically or serve as the likely consequences when a fragile old romantic, or fool, whichever case applies, goes out to fight blindly, but determinedly, as in the days of chivalry for glory.

Dewhurst doesn’t help much in this first act which tends to show Quixote on the rampage and seeking ways to demonstrate his courageous benevolence to mankind. He makes his script too episodic in way that match Cervantes’s story — The original novel gives lessons to Fielding and Dostoevsky about how to inject side tales into a narrative. — but puts Dewhurst’s play and Reed’s production into a kind of a sing-song rhythm in which Quixote will have a famous adventure, go home to be berated by his family, go out for another knightly experience, come home to wails of concern, and so on and so forth. While the instances of Quixote’s follies add up to a bigger story, one adventure would have sufficed to make Dewhurst’s point instead of a constant surge of more of the same.

Dewhurst didn’t pace the stories so they would gather a cumulative effect. They may be different in terms of Quixote’s misconception and the escalation from attacking the inanimate, then a flock of sheep, then an individual, and then a group, but all seem in the same in tone and importance, so by the fourth similar episode, you feel as if you’re visiting old territory, and the later passages don’t up to the stakes of the comedy and extent of Quixote’s confusion but cover memorably trod ground..

Also, Dewhurst emphasizes Quixote’s madness and zeal and forgets to give equal stress to his sense of romance. He talks sweetly about Aldonza, but he never quite elevates her to the Dulcinea of legend or incorporates her significantly into the fabric of his script. Aldonza , even when she’s onstage, seems to linger more in Quixote’s imagination as an image (sometimes literally) or as an ideal. She never graduates to being an object of Quixote’s palpable devotion or inspiration for his quests. She never takes on the flesh-and-blood of womanhood.

The byplay between McCann and Kovcic, strong through it is, is not enough to carry Dewhurst’s first act. Despite a lot of action, and a lot of injuries to Quixote, Sancho, and their respective mounts, Rocinante and Dapple, the material seems to cover familiar territory. Even the humor of “Here we go again” eventually evaporates. All becomes too cut-and-dried. We already know the story. Reed and company try, but they don’t manage to keep all fresh and newly engaging.

The second act is deeper. Dewhurst concentrates on Quixote’s convalescence from serious wounds, his forgetfulness about his adventures, and his effectual retirement from knight errantry. Side pieces work better in this act as well, particularly a puppet show presided over by Jennifer Summerfield and others. All seems clearer, more defined, and in forward motion, as opposed to a constantly revolving reel.

Romance never finds its way into production — amorous romance that is; Quijana’s romance with gallantry is the basis for the whole work — but McCann is touching as Quijana, now in bed and staying clear of windmills to the delight of his daughter, Colleen Marker, and Wefel’s respectable housekeeper. He subtly shows the delicateness of age and the dignity of a comfortable landed gentleman in 16th century Spain. There is a sweetness and kindness to McCann’s portrayal that is matched by the sincere and affectionate regard given Quijana by Kovcic as Sancho.

NealBoxKovcic’s Sancho actually convinces us he misses the calamities he shared with his friend and would reminisce about their insanity if Quijana’s daughter and the redoubtable Wefel as his housekeeper weren’t there to keep guard and make sure no words about past deeds and derring-do are mentioned.

The heart is the second act trumps the comic bravado of the first. It’s more centered, more accessible, more of a piece, and less hectic. Dewhurst and Reed give you an opportunity to savor the last weeks of Quijana’s days, a time of relative quiet and reflection, in a way that rarely happens in a telling of “Don Quixote” where usually, Quixote’s escapades triumph over Quijana’s mellowness. Intentionally or not, Dewhurst reversed that. Or, at least, Reed did, and the juxtaposition of emphasis, leavened the puppet show and Brock D, Vickers’s collection of Hollywood Spaniards, works admirably and turns the Hedgerow production from overworked to revealing.

McCann and Kovcic are having fun on the Hedgerow stage, but the one who seems to be having the best time is Vickers in his various roles as scoundrel, agitator, foiler of Don Quixote’s fantasy, wild Spanish lover, conquistador, and madcap guitarist or underscores each of Don Quixote’s name with a plaintive strum of his ever-ready guitar. Susan Wefel is feisty as the innkeeper and comically beside herself in horror at Quijana’s lunacy, as his housekeeper. Jennifer Summerfield plays a skein of roles with witty elegance.

Among the props that allow McCann and Kovcic to give comic, ironic heft to “Don Quixote” are their mounts, which are fashioned basic tables planks and legs on all-direction casters that allow Quixote and Sancho to back up and make other maneuvers as if they were riding a tricycle or wagon. I particularly liked the extra  pieces attached to the legs of Sancho’s Dapple as if to show withering muscles. Chris Kleckner’s set design allows windmills and other necessaries come folding out from the general set pieces. Jared Reed’s lighting design gave the ensemble the chance to entertain with shadow play and set up some of Quixote’s adventures nicely, at times through projection. The Picasso piece spoken of appears in several presentational and metaphorical ways.

McCann’s gift is his authenticity. He conveys how mad Quixote is by his obsession with the golden helmet of Mambrino and his slavery to courtly ritual, all of which Quijana learned by night-after-night reading of stories about heroic, damsel-in-distress rescuing knights. Yet the madness is inherent in Quixote/Quijana’s overall character and, by the universal grace McCann gives it, perhaps in all of our characters..

Quijana is a generous, bookish man who is proud of have an estimable estate. Quixote is the alter ego who, in Quijana’s dementia, wants to go out and search for dragons, fiends, and people who try to force others to do things against their will. McCann lets that come through even as Quixote in the midst of one of his most daring episodes.

McCann conveys how Quixote goes on full-steam-ahead, not listening to logic or being affected by wounds while giving glimpses of the cultured gentleman inside the foolish knight.

Kovcic is a consummate master at realistically being the character he needs to be at any given moment in any given show. He handles Sancho’s comic lines with expertise and shows the honest friendship Sancho has for Quixote. Kovcic’s Sancho tries to give warnings and explain the logic or reality of situation, but to no avail. He is aware when a giant is a windmill, when a golden helmet is a shaving bowl, and when a castle is an inn, but far from making him a rascal, you see Sancho get such pleasure out of letting Quixote live his fantasies, he shrugs and takes Dapple, his donkey, along for the ride.

It is the purity of the moment McCann and Kovcic both find that makes their work so enjoyable. One wishes Dewhurst had shuffled his cards a little or given each of Quixote’s quirky battles its own mood and tone, so his play would not seem as repetitive in the critical first act.

“Don Quixote” runs through Sunday, June 7, at the Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets range from $34 to $29, with several available discounts, and can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.

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