It’s tempting to say that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote never gets old. But aging is very much the point in playwright Octavio Solís’ “Quixote Nuevo” on stage at the Denver Center, through June 12.
Directed by Lisa Portes, this vivid response to the persistent call of one of the great tales in literature is as densely textured as it is often entertaining and touching.
Science and religion face off. Memory (historical and personal) and trauma (cultural and familial) get their moment to strut and bolero upon the stage. There are puppets and new-fangled calacas. Best of all — and hasn’t he always fallen under that rubric “Best of All”? — Sancho P. still has Quixote’s back.
The action — and there is plenty of it — is set in the fictional town of La Plancha, Texas, where retired literature professor Jose Quijano (Herbert Siguenza) has become too much for his sister Magdalena (Laura Crotte) to handle. His memory is faltering, making him harder and harder to care for. Against her daughter Antonia’s protests, Magdalena plans to send him to a nursing facility.
Father Perez (Sol Castillo) and Dr. Campos (Maya Malan-Gonzalez), a therapist, show up to aid in ways that speak to their conflicting world views. While they’re busy bickering the merits of God and pharmacology, Quijano escapes.
He seeks a different out (or two). One is into the imagination, where his version of Quixote sets out to right a childhood tragedy. The other? Well, it’s as inevitable as they come: Quijano is haunted by death. Clad in black leather pants and bare-chested beneath a black jacket, Papa Calaca (a lithe Raúl Cardona) arrives with a chorus of singing, taunting full-size skeletons evoking Day of the Dead celebrations.
Papa Calaca tells the tormented scholar, “know that I’m the dimmer of your light, the rigor in your mortis, Papa Muerte with all his bony angels.” Papa’s chorus is just as vigorously poetic: “Remember in the end, you ain’t what you pretend or what you spend but what you did and didn’t do, said and never said, loved and loved so badly.” (Occasionally I wished for less visual bravado to better listen to the music of these words.)
Solís’ language flows from disquisition to spoken-word boasts, from Spanish to English and back again. Fantasy and reality blend and collide, sometimes harshly, sometimes sweetly. Borders are traversed. And what happened on the divide between Mexico and Texas decades ago still haunts the aging professor enough for him to undertake a quest not unlike (actually very much like) Quixote’s. Will it prove, ahem, as quixotic? Such a fine question.
Quijano is not alone for the ride, one he embarks on astride an adult tricycle, a skull mounted on its handlebars. He drafts Manny Diaz, a paletas Mexicanas vendor, into his adventure to find his muse, Dulcinea.
Ernie González Jr. plays Manny wonderfully aware of the proximity of humor to heartache. At times Manny indulges the professor’s hallucinations of grandeur, certain they are a symptom of dementia. Other times, he’s not so sure, going so far as to defend this contemporary Quixote’s quest to find his true love and make amends. He, too, has a true love and, later, his wife, Juana (Alexis B. Santiago), will fret and steam at her man’s unexplained disappearance.
A family-run dive/karaoke bar figures into the duo’s journey, as does an encounter with an exhausted group of migrants and a weird herd of goats. In pursuit: the priest and the doctor, Magdalena and Antonia (Krystal Ortiz), as well as Juana.
There will be battles, mostly imagined but with deep, instructional insights. The music is rich, festive, foreboding. (David Molina is responsible for the aural tapestry of song and sound.) There will be dances (Marissa Herrera is the choreographer). The costumes are the foxy work of Helen Q. Huang, as is the puppet design. Pablo Santiago lets there be light: dark red desert skies and shadows befitting calacas on a mission. All of this unfolds on Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s set, one that gets at the arid magic of the high desert.
It takes a gentle, loving heroism to return again and again to Quixote and his tale. Solís has delivered Quixote anew, along the way righting offenses (there is no sexual assault) and reclaiming the rooted ethics of the canonical text for new generations, Latino and otherwise. Director Portes and her talented, tireless cast and crew have made bold the playwright’s vision. Quixote, Sancho & Co: 1. Windmills of the mind and other borders: 0.
A creative convergence in Denver
The final weekend of its run, “Quixote Nuevo” will have company in its celebrating of Latinx stories, storytellers and other theater artists when the LTC Carnaval and Comedy Festival takes up residence at Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center on Santa Fe Drive, June 9-11.
The brainchild of the Boston-based HowlRound’s Latinx Theatre Commons collective, Carnaval will bring theater professions to Denver to watch staged readings of three new full-length plays (“Escobar’s Hippo” by Franky Gonzalez, “Exhaustion: Dancin’ Trees In The Ravine, a psychedelic comedia” by W. Fran Astorga, and “La Egoista” by Erlina Ortiz), in addition to showcasing a slew of comedy sets (sketch and stand-up) and “Latine Comedy in Conversation,” with panelists Adrienne Dawes, Herbert Siguenza, Evelina Fernandez and Donelle Prado.
Why the comedy focus? “There are tools to fight oppression baked into comedy,” says Amelia Acosta Powell, whose producer credit — “LTC Comedy Carnaval Champion” — winks at the serious playfulness (or is it vice versa?) of the endeavor. “Within our own communities, there’s a responsiveness of ‘I don’t want to talk about exclusively trauma. I want to celebrate joy. I want to celebrate love stories. I want to just be a full human.’ So, I do think that there’s that impulse right now among ourselves.”
As for Denver, Powell knows it well. She grew up in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood before heading to Washington, D.C., for college. Just when the linguistics major who went on to get her master’s degree was veering toward academia, a fellowship at D.C.’s Arena Stage replotted her course. She’s currently the impact producer at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
“There’s a rich, diverse, and exciting Latinx art scene in Denver and not necessarily as nationally recognized as it should be. So, I pitched an event for Denver, and I was so happy it was selected,” Powell said during a zoom call. “And of course, (Su Teatro artistic director) Tony Garcia has been involved for a long time, too.”
In person for the first time since 2019, Carnaval convenes during Su Teatro’s 50th anniversary celebrations. (Just to jam the pack even more, Su Teatro reprises its hit musical saunter down carril de la memoria, “Chicanos Sing the Blues” — conceived and developed by Garcia and Danny Valdez — opening June 9 and running through June 26.)
Garcia, too, sees the rebellious possibilities in comedy. “I think our communities have always had that ability to be resilient through our humor — and through our music and through our food,” he says.
“It’s like we’re celebrating the most painful stuff. But that’s how we survive, how we challenge it, how we dissect it, too,” he went on to say. “If it wasn’t for our sarcasm, I don’t know how we would survive. Sarcasm is a powerful tool, not only for lashing out, but it’s also a powerful tool for deconstructing and learning. Humor is a great way of finding truth.”
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