Review: “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self”

Godinez and audience member (Ryan Stanfield)


Where: Writers Theatre, Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Dec. 17
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

Theater Critic

If you want to introduce your children to one of the classics of Western literature, encourage them to enjoy animated storytelling and audience participation, and exhort them to take action to solve the world’s problems, you probably couldn’t do much better than to take them to see “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self” at Writers Theatre.

Written by Mexican playwright Mónica Hoth, a children’s theater expert, and Claudio Valdés Kuri, who also directed, the 95-minute piece delves into Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s 1605 masterpiece, “Don Quixote,” and makes a case for its relevance in our own times. The problem is that the play becomes much too repetitive and didactic, at least as translated by Georgina Escobar, who among other things has won a theater-for-young-audiences award. Perhaps underestimating the intelligence of an adult audience, it tries so hard to be inspirational that it’s annoying instead.

The conceit in what starts out as a one-man show is that Don Quixote de la Mancha—the errant knight many of us know best from the musical—has issues with his author and tries to take control of his own story. Embodied by Henry Godinez in a larger-than-life tour de force performance, we first see him—in costume designer Sanja Manakoski’s fantastical “armor” incorporating everything from old coins to mangled license plates—in an impossibly contorted position, Cervantes’ book lying open next to him.

He asks for help, and once an audience volunteer closes the book, Quixote is able to get up and speak to us about his author, his creation, his exploits, and his immense popularity. It’s kind of a literary crash course—with a catch. Every time the book opens, or he opens it, he’s forced to explain or enact the chapter it lands on in the two parts that make up the novel.

His acrobatic antics (Sylvia Hernandez DiStasi was acrobatic advisor) are applied first to the famous tilting-at-windmills incident, which like everything else transpires on a bare rectangular stage enhanced by Alexander Ridgers’ atmospheric lighting. Following that, Quixote recounts a couple of tales, bringing up members of the audience to help him out, which requires considerable improvisation on both his part and theirs. The longest is the saga of Cardenio, a young man with a scruffy beard driven to madness by romantic woes involving betrayal by both his beloved and a friend. On the night I saw the show, my companion was called upon to play the unhappy youth and really ran with it, so I was delighted (and, apparently, so were a lot of other people who came up to him afterwards), but I can imagine this segment becoming tedious in lesser hands.

Anyway, it turns out this is all a set up. (Don’t read further if you don’t like spoilers. Programs aren’t given out until after the show to avoid them.) Next Quixote asks if anyone has actually read Cervantes’ book in its entirety, and a young woman (Emma Ladji) says she has, starting a discussion that soon has her joining the knight on stage. She also keeps a diary, we learn, but even though she’s her own author (as it were)—much to his amazement—she has trouble maintaining an upper hand in the face of frightening thoughts and memories.

There ensues a much-too-long section with Quixote and the girl trying to wrest control of their narratives from their respective books, which keep falling open to unwanted pages. They also try to help each other out, at times trotting and dancing around the stage. Her preoccupation is saving the planet from deforestation and other environmental and social ills, and he joins forces with her. The upshot amounts to a lecture on avoiding apathy, committing to causes, and being more like Don Quixote—and master of your own fate—even if you fail.

These are worthy ideas, to be sure, but beating us over the head with them is unlikely to have the desired effect. The script needs work to integrate the two halves and to enlighten with a lighter hand, but thanks to Godinez’s virtuosity, “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self” has the “entertain’ part of the common equation down pat.