Man of La Mancha fuses fate and fantasy

Actors Eon Smith, Gabriel Carbajal and Shaun Pearson in a scene during rehearsal for BPA’s spring production, Man of La Mancha. - Brad Camp/For the Review
Actors Eon Smith, Gabriel Carbajal and Shaun Pearson in a scene during rehearsal for BPA’s spring production, Man of La Mancha.
— image credit: Brad Camp/For the Review

Living 500 years apart and on opposite sides of the world, author and playwright Miguel de Cervantes and City of Bremerton employee Kevin Matthew have something in common. Both hold down respectable day jobs: Cervantes as a tax collector for the Spanish and Matthew works in Bremerton’s information technology department.

But when the curtain rises and the lights shine, both men, Cervantes in prison trying to win over his fellow inmates, and Matthew, on stage at Bainbridge Performing Arts in front of a less hostile crowd, morph into the great Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Matthew is the star of BPA’s spring musical production, Man of La Mancha, the story of the 16th century Spanish author Cervantes, who in reality wrote a number of tales about Quixote, acting out his manuscript in a play within a play.

The production, directed by Corey McDaniel, begins with Cervantes and his servant being jailed. While awaiting inquisition, his fellow prisoners capture him and put him on trial. Should he lose, Cervantes would forfeit his possessions.

In his defense, Cervantes recruits the prisoners to act out his story.

Cervantes transforms into Alonso Quijana, a retiree, who dreams of a fantasy world based on romance novels. Quijana himself invents the noble but sometimes misguided Quixote, while his servant Sancho Panza, played by Gabriel Carbajal, joins him on his quests.

The concept of the play within a play intrigued McDaniel, so he didn’t want to overplay it.

The shift between the dingy, dreary prison, and the vibrant fantasy world of Quixote, is made most obvious by changes in lighting and costumes.

“It’s really important that there be two specific worlds on set,” McDaniel said. “It’s the dark and drab against the fantastical and bright.”

The disparate stories require a number of quick costume changes. Traditionally, the changes are hidden by lights or other effects, but McDaniel has built the costume changes into his production. McDaniel employs a trunk of Cervantes’ possessions as a mobile dressing room for the cast.

“I chose to not be afraid of it,” he said. “You will see it occur in front of you.”

The set and costumes only begin to illustrate the drama of dichotomy that shapes this piece.

Matthew floats seamlessly between Cervantes the playwright and Quixote the knight, but Matthew sees the difficulty.

“Personally, it’s a challenge,” he said. “I don’t often play multi-dimensional characters.”

As the show progresses, that challenge lessens, as the two characters begin to sync up and the lines between reality and the play blur.

Carbajal, playing Panza, provides comic relief for the show, spicing up several otherwise dramatic moments.

“I smile a lot, I laugh a lot, and I wonder how people aren’t as excited,” Carbajal said about his character.

Prancing about the stage in a long black wig, Panza is the only character with a detectable accent, something Carbajal said was thrown in to make his comedic character stand out even more. While Carbajal doesn’t change back and forth between opposing personas, he is charged with mingling the comedic and bright elements with some of the dark scenes and backdrops.

“I bring the energy of comedy to these kind of cold scenes,” he said.

Panza’s comedy is offset by the tenacious nature of Aldonza, played by Greer Gibbens, “a quintessential servant wench,” as Gibbens described her. Aldonza is a foul-mouthed, intense character who is used to fighting off the advances of undesirable suitors.

But the way Quixote treats her changes everything.

Like Quixote and Cervantes, Aldonza psychologically evolves into Dulcinea, the woman Quixote pledged his eternal loyalty to and mistakes Aldonza for.

“It’s like a religious conversion where she perceives a way of life that wasn’t there for her before,” Gibbens said.

Gibbens didn’t want the change to turn her character from an angry strong woman into a damsel in distress, however.

Aldonza often brings the play back down to earth, offsetting the world of Quixote and Panza.

“As famous as this piece is, it’s easy to get swept up in the sentimentalism and fantasy and forget about the gritty aspect,” Gibbens said.

That intensity carries into the show’s complex action sequences. Some scenes, choreographed by LeeAnne Hittenberger, have the entire cast on stage with multiple tussles occurring in the same sequence, such as a scene where Quixote, Panza and Aldonza fend off the seedy muleteers.

Later in the play, Aldonza is taken by the muleteers in a scene where the woman battles a number of attackers before being knocked out and passed around to each man to have their way with her.

These scenes continue the juxtaposition of the magical and the real. But the beauty of this play, according to its cast, is that whether a scene is full of laughs, or it’s a dark and dangerous situation, the enthusiasm remains high.

“You have to match everyone else’s energy, or get swallowed by it,” Carbajal said.

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