Singing and dancing prisoners seems to be the local theater theme for autumn. Between Marat/Sade, Kiss of the Spider Woman and New Line's current production of Man of La Mancha, incarcerated vocalists abound. If only John Proctor had burst into song as he sat in prison in The Crucible, we'd be able to claim a genuine phenomenon.
Powerful performances by Todd Schaefer and April Lindsey (as Don Quixote and Aldonza) anchor the production with solid vocal and acting work. Schaefer transitions believably from playwright Cervantes, awaiting his turn before the Inquisition, into Don Quixote, addled Knight and Dreamer of Impossible Dreams. Lindsey begins with a feisty song, telling the men that they're "all the same." Soon caught up in Quixote's dream of her as something pure and holy, she turns from ardent disciple to disillusioned believer, delivering a scalding rebuke in "Aldonza." Excellent ensemble supporting work, particularly from Brian Claussen, Thom Crain and Jason Weitkamp, add energy and beautiful harmonies throughout.
Audience members should stay in the lobby until the last possible moment before the show begins -- for two important reasons. For one thing, you'll miss the confusing pre-show activities: Actors portraying prisoners enter the space (to bizarrely anachronistic Miles Davis jazz) and the men chase the women around, fondle them, smack them and generally battle for control. Why is this misguided? First, because unless you come in already familiar with the show, you don't know that these are prisoners, so you wonder why the women don't just leave. Second, the actors are so close to the audience that the fake punches and elbow jabs are obviously fake. Third, the lack of context (who are these actors and why are they chanting "give me booby" and chasing the girls around?) makes the encounters seem humorous. Director Scott Miller seems to be trying to establish the gritty reality of prison life but instead ends up highlighting the fiction of the play and the players.
Actually, Reason Number Two to remain in the lobby as long as possible has to do with Number One. As in: You'll probably want to avail yourself of the restroom immediately before the curtain rises. This show runs for two hours and ten minutes, with no intermission. Perhaps this odd choice was meant to keep the audience engaged with the driving action of the story. Sadly, what it ends up doing for all but the most big-bladdered is to create a tension that's completely unrelated to what's unfolding onstage.
Theatergoing practicalities aside, Man of La Mancha critiques the abuse of power by the Catholic Church while upholding the Christian ideals of purity, charity and service. That those ideals can only be achieved by letting a man give you a new name (Aldonza becomes "Dulcinea") makes the politics of the show problematic. Instead of addressing root causes of despair and poverty, Man of La Mancha invokes a kind of Norman Vincent Peale approach to changing the world: Think positive, believe in yourself and your life will be transformed. While this might work for a person whose basic needs have been met, it seems flagrantly foolish for someone who's starving, illiterate and imprisoned. Give them some bread. Teach them to read. Get them a lawyer. Having someone "dream a dream to keep him from despair" is not a new tactic: The church has always held out dreams of a better future as a way of making people forget about the injustices of the present.
Whether the play is truly revolutionary -- or simply chauvinism masquerading as chivalry -- is certainly fuel for discussion. If the problematic politics of La Mancha won't bother you too much, this production has much to recommend it: Miller's in-the-round staging is eyecatching, the lighting clearly delineates the "Don Quixote" story from the "Cervantes" story and the musical work is excellent. Even if you don't buy the play's pie-in-the-sky mentality, Lindsey's voice piercing the darkness of the prison at play's end is enough to make you believe at least in the beauty of a theatrical moment. Maybe that's ultimately what the show is about.