The laughing and crying masks, while the quintessential symbol of the theatre, perfectly encapsulate the duality of tones in “Man of La Mancha.” Navigating the choice between an unpleasant reality and a more appealing fiction, the Custom Made Theatre Co. deftly handles this subject matter with a certain sense of originality. Providing laughter and tears in equal measure, Miguel de Cervantes’ tragic figure Don Quixote is treated beautifully by Custom Made’s talented players.
“Man of La Mancha” utilises a clever play-within-a-play format to address this aforementioned central question. Chronologically set against the dark background of the Spanish Inquisition, the show begins with a fictionalized Cervantes (Edward Hightower) in prison awaiting his judgment. After his manuscript is taken by a fellow prisoner, Cervantes offers the resulting play as a means to persuade his prisoners to return his life’s work. He assigns his peers the various roles while himself taking the role of the befuddled Alonso Quijano, an aging man who firmly believes he is actually the soon-to-be-knight Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Cast in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote, Hightower handled both of these parts with ease. His Quixote portrayal immediately created rapport with the audience. His affable tone and likable demeanor were balanced by his more nuanced portrayal of Cervantes himself. Staged in a cozy, easily-overlooked San Francisco venue, Quixote’s larger-than-life personality and ideals truly had room to shine.
Custom Made’s smaller stage only added to the show’s charm. Transforming from a prison cell to a humble inn, the modest stage helped dissolve the fourth wall between the audience and the actors. The audience felt like just another patron at the inn. This effect was not achieved via elaborate stage decoration but rather through the intimate atmosphere inherently found on the Custom Made Theatre stage. This, coupled with the strength of the performances themselves, helped persuade the audience to believe in Don Quixote’s comical version of reality.
The humor in the first half of the show is pronounced. Laughs from the audience come swiftly and easily. The second act, however, offers a more critical view of Quixote’s delusions with characters such as Aldonza (Rachael Richman) facing the consequences of his decisions. In spite of these repercussions, one fervently roots for Don Quixote’s doomed adventures. Against dubious odds, against their own sanity, audience members find themselves rooting for Quixote’s make-believe quest every step of the way.
Custom Made Theatre Co./ Courtesy
Adding complexity to the show was the way in which the performers seamlessly move among multiple roles. Despite its small cast, “Man of La Mancha” has a surprising number of roles. Instead of being a hindrance, however, the cast members at Custom Made Theatre Co. use this fact to their advantage. Characters are at times center stage and other times retired quietly to the background to provide music for another scene. If anything, the limited cast of this production offers the performers multiple avenues to showcase their talents. The music and instruments not only help cement the time period of the musical, but they provide another tongue-in-cheek opportunity for the players to cultivate more laughs.
Paul Hogarth’s melodica may seem out of place adjacent to his flute- and violin-toting peers. But his musical ability is never in question. Hogarth provides beautiful accompaniment and haunting harmonies in songs such as “Little Bird.” Don Quixote’s bumbling squire, Sancho Panza (Dave Leon), is also no stranger to comedy. Leon flouts the time period in which he finds himself by punctuating songs such as “I Really Like Him” with loud bursts from his tuba. These humorous decisions reinforce the overall tone of “Man of La Mancha” as an even blend of impressive musicality and humor.
“Man of La Mancha” runs through Feb. 17 at Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St. in San Francisco.