High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Don Q. Parameters

First up: a treat for those of you in the Black Helicopter Brigade. A while back, my pal M attended a picnic thrown by the Future Overlords of Her Grandchildren. Part of the noblesse oblige-y goodness was, of course, doorprizes. She raked in a pair of tickets for Court Theatre's production of Man of La Mancha. Swallowing her bitterness at those who had gotten iPods and flatscreens, she informed me that in the likely event that the First Daughter exercised her right of first refusal, the second ticket was mine.

This did come to pass and we began to trade e-mails in an attempt to narrow down dates. At some point, I told her that I'd cleverly deleted the e-mail containing her Don Q. Parameters. Shortly thereafter, she received a spam with this very subject line.

Wackiness in getting to the venue was only very narrowly missed. I had e-mailed my benefactress earlier in the day proposing that I pick her up at the Storey. By the time I left the Painful Acres, I had not yet received a reply. I figured I would just call her as I approached Hyde Park. And thankfully, I did. We had a moment of:

M: Where should I stand?
C: Uh . . .
M: Well, will you be coming North on Woodlawn?

C: Er . . . [C is pretty sure that the Storey is not on Woodlawn]. No? South on Greenwood?
M: [A Pinterian Pause in celebration of his inexplicable Nobel]. I'm at work?
C: [Counterpauses]. Ah. Yes. North on Woodlawn. There in a trice.

Had you chanced to ask if you'se would be dining, you would have found us at La Petit Folie, quite a nice little French place surprisingly located in the Co-op shopping center. We'd been urged to make our reservations for 5:45 for our 8:00 curtain and walked into a completely empty restaurant. We both opted for the pre-theatre prix fixe (Goat cheese tart and berries with chantilly cream for both of us, chicken for her, skate for me). Despite quite a bit of downtime between courses, we still found ourselves at the end of dinner with vast acres of time in which we could grow crops. We lingered over coffee and then enjoyed the lovely night air in front of the theatre before making our way inside to get the maximum exposure to the Ushers on Deathwatch (disappointingly understaffed by those with one foot in the grave, if you ask me).

We had fabulous seats, smack in the center, row C. These were particularly excellent as they were a perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the totally cool set.

Court's space is a terrifically versatile one. Several years ago, we saw Nora (one of the umptibillion variations on A Doll's House) in the round, although I wouldn't count that as one of my favorite sets. And then, of course, I was a big fan of the staging and set design of Guys & Dolls last year.Although I asthetically appreciated the fact that this amphitheatre-style set used the fuck out of every last inch of vertical space, I must admit that people climbing down rungs into the set from 25 feet up with a freaking GUITAR on their back took years off the life of my internal stage manager.

Basically, the upstage half of the circular set had three sets of stairs. At stage right, these were truncated, ending in the aforementioned heart-stopping rungs up to the window that provided the lone entrance into the prison. Both the sound and lighting design made the most of the creep factor when this would open to either admit or summon one of the condemned. The set of stairs slightly stage right of center went all the way up to the back wall, but also ended in another set of rungs leading up to another window barred window in which one of the prisoners would occasionally lurk. Most of the props and costumes (such as they were) for the play-within-the-play came from this area as well. Up and slightly left of center the back wall had a large, grated arch cut into it. The landing at the top of these stairs was curtained off into a couple separate spaces, including the niche from which Aldonza conducted her business.

The downstage portion of the set was a circular pit fronted by a ramp and lined with a stair leading down into it. The stage left wall had a small, low hearth within it for local prop storage. The pit was probably 10-12 feet across and most of the floor was taken up with a grate. This had a small hinged portion giving access to the "water feature" (as M dubbed it) underneath throughout, and the entire thing (probably 8 feet across) lifted up at the critical moment near the end. With some lovely lighting work, the water was thus turned into the mirror that brings Quijana back to himself (really nicely done).

The finishing touch on the set was the circular ramp at the foot of each set of stairs and continuing on between the audience and the pit. The upstage section was set a step up from the downstage half. Altogether, the verticality, the depth (yeah, yeah, I know), and the circularity gave the actors not just a tremendous amount of space to work with, but also gave the whole production the dynamic feel needed to sell the play-within-a-play without any set changes.

Uh, as wonderful a set this was for acting, I must note that it had to be the special hell for the musicians. The conductor (and pianist) was tucked into a niche deep downstage right with the guitarist and the flute, clarinet, and trumpet were clear across the stage, wedged in at downstage left. This didn't seem to much hinder the, though, for which I was thankful. The last production of this I saw was at UT, probably 7 or 8 years ago, now, and though they had a wonderful cast, their orchestra had been dredged up from some unspeakable place.

Performance-wise, there's not much to complain about. Herbert Perry was quite The Man as the titular man. Given that he's sung Figaro (Mozart's) at the Met, vocal expectations were high, and he came through. If I had to complain about him, I'd say that he tended to treat dialogue as recitative, which came across as nerves (or inexperience at this acting thang) in the opening. But that's a small quibble and I could find no fault with the emotion he was able to drum up while singing and throughout the rest of the play.

Neil Friedman as Sancho was also a total delight. He's a burly cutiepie and both the director and the actor wisely avoided the James Coco route. He's a saner, mother hen of a Sancho, rather than a slightly imebecilic child along for the ride. This came across well in his two main songs ("I Like Him" and "A Little Gossip"). Although he certainly had the vocal chops to sing them all the way through, they wove in a bit or recitative to make it clear he keeps one foot in reality all the time.

I see that Hollis Resnick (Aldonza/Dulcinea) is credited with several serious singing roles. That surprises me a bit. I'd pretty much pegged her as a singing actor, rather than an acting singer. First of all, they'd sped up "One Pair of Arms" to, I kid you not, something like quadruple time and stripped it of the more operatic passages. "Why Do You Do the Things You Do?", strangely, had been turned into "Why Does He Do the Things He Does?" sung to the audience with all the other actors turned to face upstage. Once again, this had been arranged firmly into "musical" territory, rather than operatic. I mean, I know that number is nothing but a hategram for whoever created that role, but the extent to which it was ratcheted down was extreme.

Now seeing her street cred, though, I have to assume that the arrangements and the direction of the character were deliberate choices, rather than born of necessity. When I commented afterward that I was not wild about Resnick's Aldonza, M commented that some distance would have helped with her, which was an excellent point. You might notice in the photos that she's constantly pulling a face or striking a melodramatic pose. That's not because they've caught her in a high note or the aftermath of her gang-rape. Her performance is constantly BIG, jerky, and jagged at every moment. Both the Trib and the Sun-Times seem to have liked it, but it largely didn't work for me.

The supporting cast were uniformly terrific, but I have to give two singing shout outs. Stephen Wallem as the Padre is shaved bald and sports a beard of which the M, even in his Zombie Groomsman phase, would be jealous. This transforms the mild-mannered dude into someone you really wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley. The voice that came out of this thug is difficult to describe. It was positively angelic and, although I wasn't wild about the halting arrangement of "To Each His Dulcinea," I could have listened to him sing it over and over and over again.

Susie McMonagle as both the Inkeeper's Wife and Quijana's housekeeper was also outstanding. She kept reminding me of Miranda Richardson (never a bad thing), and they'd arranged the group numbers to make great use of her voice.

Although this is certainly a well-loved play for me, I must admit that it's difficult to answer the M's well-made point that an author is never going to win her to his side with lines like "Facts are the enemy of Truth." The aphoristic and slightly corny tone suggest that Wasserman, Darion, and Leigh were really digging their heels in against the 60s.

I'm not sure that some of the choices in this production don't complicate that cornyness. Taking Aldonza's portrayl as a deliberate choice, I got to thinking about the 31 flavors of insanity in the characters. Resnick is accompanied on the "nobody outcrazies Ophelia" front by, George Keating, the prisoner who ends up playing the Barber. Aldonza is more coherent, but both are out on the crackhead-in-withdrawl end of the insanity spectrum. The Duke/Dr. Carassco, the Governor/Inkeeper, and Scorpion/Pedro are altogether more likely to lash out in anger, rather than to break out in hysterics. In their downtime, they're composed and despairing, rather than frenetically active.

Don Quixote's insanity is, of course, supposed to be a "good" insanity, allowing him to se "the world as it should be" rather than accepting it as it is. Unfortunately, there's already a classist/sexist subtext in the play itself, and some of the choices made in this production tend to highlight those, rather than remedying them. No slight intended toward Keating at all, but he's so boyish already that kid with a serious behavioral disorder is a superior metaphor. I withdraw the crackhead analogy. Given that he's the most similar to Aldonza, though, that places her on the receiving end of a hunka hunka burnin' condescension.

That point isn't helped out of craw stickage by the approach to sex in this production, either. Most frequently when the issue is raised, Aldonza shrinks from it in a very childlike way. It's worth noting that my 1965 recording sanitizes many of the lyrics (e.g., "One Pair of Arms" should end with "I'm only Aldonza the whore"), whereas this production does not. But one example of the, perhaps, overly timid approach to Aldonza's job (and I feel somewhat unfair citing it, given the thankless task that is staging a gang rape) is the violent, angry reprise of "Little Bird" during which the men at the Inn take turns raping Aldonza. First of all, it's done in slow motion with slow pulses of life (I have to hand it to them, they pulled off slow motion on stage pretty well, and that usually makes the Baby Scott cry [see, e.g., UT's horrible production of Oliver Stone's Julius Caeasar]). The women are also vocally included and the distinction between participation and failure to intervene isn't made strongly enough.

It winds up coming off like simple physical violence (to the point that M wasn't entirely sure what had happened). That and several other directorial and acting choices end up giving the feeling that Don Quixote his saving Aldonza from sex (which, after all, nice girls don't like) than from the routine sexual brutality in her life.

It's a testament to the production and to the actors, though, that most of these points of dissatisfaction are only occurring to me in deep retrospect and with the benefit of reading some of the playnotes and actor bios. Speaking of the playnotes, although the brief essay on the Inquisition (complete with gory line drawings) seemed a bit gratuitous, the quotations on imprisonment were well chosen and added to a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the the-ah-tah.

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