Both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare died in 1616. But last year, when it came time to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the deaths of these writers — one who forged the Golden Age of Spanish literature, and the other widely agreed to be the greatest writer in the English language — it was the Bard of Avon, with his 37 plays and hundreds of characters who, to a great extent, crowded out the creator of Don Quixote.
‘QUIXOTE: ON THE CONQUEST OF SELF’
When: Through Dec. 17
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Now, a corrective has arrived in the form of the Writers Theatre production of “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self,” the quirky, brainy, playful, and decidedly “meta” meditation on Cervantes and his greatest “invention” — that wonderfully mad Spanish knight at the center of his monumental novel.
As it happens, this play was created for the Cervantes anniversary by the Mexico-based theater artists Monica Hoth and Claudio Valdes Kuri. And Kuri, who also is responsible for the show’s ingenious direction, knew that Chicago actor Henry Godinez, who he had met years earlier, was just the man to finesse its English language production. (The zesty translation is the work of Georgina Escobar.)
At one point in the novel, Cervantes writes of Quixote, the Spanish nobleman who has spent far too much time pouring over chivalric romances: “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” This makes it only fitting that our first glimpse of Quixote finds him literally upended. Lying on the floor, encased in a crazy patchwork suit of armor (a wonderful costume by Sanja Manakoski), his legs are in mid-air, and like a tortoise struggling to right himself, he tries desperately to grab hold of a book that is just out of reach.
When he finally does manage to get back on his feet , this Quixote is charmingly self-mocking and hip, acknowledging that his name is widely known, that by now he has transcended into academia, and musicals, and Google-land, and that his readership is purported to be second in number only to the Bible. He also quips that he is quite sure most people have never made it all the way through the two books that Cervantes (perhaps with the help of others) wrote about him.
Clearly Quixote is suffering from something of an existential crisis, although the one thing he is sure of is that his spirit shall never fail. He also knows that the attempt to do good requires great courage and can be a millstone around one’s neck. He will warn you, too, that apathy is a great monster, and that the lack of will to make a difference in this world is a terrible thing.
Along the way, this Quixote — a creation of the past who is very much in touch with the present — engages members of the audience in ways that are both funny and charming.
But now comes a serious spoiler alert.
It involves the lively girl in jeans and a Moto jacket who initially seems like just another audience “volunteer,” though one with an exceptional level of smarts, style and active engagement who is more than happy to engage Quixote in conversation. And yes, Emma Ladji (whose photo is kept out of all publicity for a reason) is a ringer. But the young actress is so natural, and so beguilingly sassy in her initial engagement with Godinez, that she might very well fool you for a while, and her arrival injects just the sort of youthful diversion and feminine spark needed to balance the rich-voiced Godinez, whose character is at once droll and high-minded. Both actors also are fleet and flexible enough to somersault with ease and dance with panache, with help from acrobatic advisor Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi and choreographer Billy Siegenfeld.
Worthy of special mention, too, is the stark, mood-altering work of lighting designer Alexander Ridgers that sculpts an otherwise empty stage. Empty of “furniture” perhaps, but full of a play that holds fast to hope and idealism.