ORLANDO – Davis Gaines cuts a truly commanding presence as Cervantes, the tax collector, playwright and dreamer in the legendary Broadway show “Man of La Mancha,” now being performed at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, that he’s thrilling ever moment he’s on stage.
Gaines has a marvelously towering voice from the very start, when he performs the show’s classic opening title song, “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote).” For the next two hours, he beautifully balances humor, pathos and more than a bit of tragedy in his performance. He’s particularly good when matched up against the equally stunning Laura Hodos as his imaginary love, Dulcinea. The two of them could have carried on the entire show themselves and been a pure delight to watch.
This beautifully mounted production of the 1964 Broadway hit by Dale Wasserman was directed by Nick DeGruccio, and his approach made me feel like I was watching the show for the first time. In several of the past productions that I’ve seen in Central Florida, the cast and directors emphasized humor, as the befuddled dreamer Cervantes and his loyal sidekick Sancho Panza were portrayed as comedic figures whose actions verged on slapstick.
There’s humor in this production as well, perhaps most effectively when Sancho sings a tearful “I Really Like Him” while peeling onions with Dulcinea.
But DeGruccio’s version is considerably darker and more intense than any other version I’ve seen. It repeatedly forces us to confront the very grim, brutal and seemingly hopeless reality that Cervantes is facing in the real world.
Set in the late sixteenth century, it opens in a dark dungeon filled with prisoners. Staged in the Shakes’ Margeson Theater, the room gets transformed into in-the-round seating.
And one of the most striking effects is the staircase that gets lowered into the dungeon every time a new prisoner is brought there, or when the soldiers of the Spanish Inquisition show up and drag someone off to their likely torture and death. The loud, screeching sound of that staircase as it comes down like a castle drawbridge is increasingly eerie every time it happens.
It’s into this dungeon that Miguel de Cervantes, a playwright and actor turned tax collector (to pay the bills) is brought, along with Sancho. Cervantes has been charged with infuriating the church by trying to foreclose on a monastery for unpaid taxes. The fellow prisoners pounce on Cervantes and Sancha, and threaten to burn his precious manuscripts. When Cervantes pleads with them to spare his work, they set up a mock trial, and he responds by taking out a makeup kit, getting into costume, and transforming himself into Alonso Quijano, an aging gentleman who’s lost his mind and now sees himself as a noble knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha.
The play-with-a-play has always captured audience’s imaginations by offering the choice between a harsh, unsparing world or escaping into fantasy – pretty much the role theater has served since the beginning, in a sense.
And if there’s plenty of humor to be found in the fantastical adventures of a man who thinks he’s a grand knight, this production doesn’t shy away from or downplay the show’s much harsher moments, including the rape of Dulcinea, the beating of a prisoner in the dungeon, and the growing tension every time it shifts back to that den of prisoners, with a realistic knowledge of just how grim Cervantes’ situation is.
The cast of 19 actors work as a superb ensemble, and it’s hard not to be deeply moved when Don Quixote sings “The Impossible Dream” at the end of Act I, or when the entire cast returns to it at the play’s closing. Life truly can be unforgiving and cruel, but it’s up to all of us to figure out just how far escapism can carry us along.
The Tony Award-winning musical runs through Oct. 8 at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., and tickets ($18-$65) can be purchased by calling 407-447-1700 Ext. 1 or visiting either the website or at the box office.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..