As Delaware Theatre Co.’s musical “Man of La Mancha” opens, the writer Miguel de Cervantes is being escorted into a dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition.
Above, light shines through a trapdoor. Below, it’s clear there are worse depths to this jail.
Cervantes’ fellow prisoners set upon him, stealing his possessions, including a manuscript, which they threaten to destroy.
Instead, Cervantes, played by Scott Langdon, suggests that they allow him to tell the story, and as Cervantes does, he transforms into Don Quixote as the prisoners transform into other characters.
“This community gets formed in this most unlikely of places in the service of telling this story,” Langdon said. “And the prisoners take ownership of it not only in the telling of it, but also in our production in the playing of it.”
One of the DTC-only touches is that characters will also double as musicians, so the audience sees words and music played before them.
Director Matt Silva, who also is the theater’s executive director, sees it as a technique that’s connected many of the theater’s recent shows such as “The Million Dollar Quartet,” “Plaid Tidings” and “One Man, Two Guvnors.”
The musical, which soared into popularity in the 1960s, has been a favorite of Silva’s ever since he worked on it in high school. He and his father, who died two years ago, formed a special relationship that revolved around it, he says.
Today’s world has just as many fractures and partisan relationships as the world of “The Man of La Mancha,” he said.
Silva believes the show offers some pathways to examine those divisions. So does Langdon.
“There are words that we throw around a lot, words like fascism and authoritarianism, and each side seems to do it to the other side with the feeling they have ownership over the definition,” Langdon said. “On the surface, this play is about this system that is suppressing any kind of speech against it.”
But, ultimately, he says, it’s about people realizing they are stuck in the middle and can make choices to go toward the light and hope or sink deeper into darkness and despair.
“What we’re trying to do with this story is say there is a motion toward the things that are most noble and precious and brilliant and beautiful about us. And it goes in this direction,” Langdon said. “Let’s look at what that looks like. And when we focus this way, really where we are, we’re okay. And when we go this way, what does that do? What does that do to you?”
The prisoners are being detained in a holding cell, “and see one by one these characters sort of buy in to this idea of yeah, here we are in holding, but we might dare to have hope,” he said.
‘I, Don Quixote’
The musical by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion will close Delaware Theater Company’s 43rd season. It began previews Wednesday and will close April 30.
The show, which features Broadway classics such as “The Impossible Dream” and “I, Don Quixote,” is based on Cervantes’ early 17fth-century book, which many consider the first modern novel.
Quixote’s character has become a character archetype, and gave the world the word quixotic, which describes the impractical pursuit of unrealistic goals, as well as the notion of “tilting at windmills” to describe creating and then battling an enemy that doesn’t really exist.
DTC’s production features 12 actors on stage, an unusually large cast for regional theaters.
Langdon’s favorite scene is when Cervantes begins to divvy up the roles and the audience starts to see the story and Quixote come to life.
It’s a reminder of how much each individual can help make the story the best it can be, he said.
Many theaters are tempted to update classic shows with a tweak or two, he said.
“There is nothing one needs to tweak with this material,” he said. “What’s happening here is just embracing it in a way that has never been done before.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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