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Singing truth to power: (l-r) Aroeste and Dawson in Man of La Mancha.

The Dream Come True
By James Yeara

Man of La Mancha
Book by Dale Wassermann, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion, directed by Patricia Birch
New York State Theatre Institute, through Jan. 30

The New York State Theatre Institute is justly touted as the foremost children’s theater in the area. The company trains and entertains children, creating bold, bright shows that kids can take their parents to. But NYSTI’s current production of the 1966 Tony Award- winning Man of La Mancha is no kiddie show, and NYSTI this January is a place for grown ups to enjoy first-rate adult theater. Succeeding last year’s excellent Fiorello!, NYSTI is establishing its “concert series”—trimmed down productions of classic musicals—as must-see theater that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the region’s other innovative series, Shakespeare & Company’s celebrated Bare Bard series and StageWorks/Hudson’s Play by Play. These are productions that challenge even as they entertain, and focus on the core of what theatre can do, without all the bells, whistles, and distracting celebrities. As with Bare Bard and Play by Play, NYSTI’s concert musicals are theater as it should be: focused on the story, the theme, and the characters, not on the distracting flash and dash.

Directed by the legendary Patricia Birch, the directing talent behind many of NYSTI’s finest productions including last year’s Fiorello!, this Man of La Mancha is staged intelligently and effectively, stripped down to the essentials. The action is presented before set designer Richard Finkelstein’s soaring three-story-tall brick wall set, which looks like a damp, dirty basement where NYSTI stores its forgotten sets or a sickly, dark dungeon for forgotten prisoners. The atmosphere shifts as the play requires, aided greatly by John McLain’s lighting design, which is heavy on fog, smoke and shafts of light that illuminate the darkness of characters as fully as the actors do.

For this Man of La Mancha is less a celebration of a soaring iconoclast belting out classic songs as it is a contemporary celebration of theater. Those who know the musical only from the 1972 Peter O’Toole movie or the Placido Domingo recording or the recent Brian Stokes Mitchell Broadway revival or from any of the countless, forgettable community- theater productions, will be startled by Birch’s return to the musical’s off-Broadway roots. From the opening, in which the cast, dressed in Robert Anton’s excellent black-on-black costumes of leather, denim, cotton, or spandex, drift onstage before curtain time to lounge as if waiting for a rehearsal to begin, this Man of La Mancha is challenging and gripping. Led admirably by NYSTI stalwarts Joel Aroeste (Cervantes/Don Quixote/Quijana) and John Romeo (Cervantes’ manservant/Sancho), Birch’s large cast focuses on the storytelling, acknowledging the audience sitting in front of them and purposefully understating the hyperbolic theatricality of musicals.

Amid the clutter of boxes, storage cabinets, costume racks, ladders, platforms and those shafts of smoky light—and all those familiar theatrical expectations—black-clad actors step forward to talk to the audience, not above or through them. They explain that Cervantes “was born the same year as William Shakespeare . . . and died the same year as William Shakespeare,” provide background on the author and finally give us, ever so simply, directly, and truthfully, the theme: “He witnessed man’s inhumanity towards man and said, ‘I beg to differ.’ ”

Birch then shifts the focuses from the here and now to the frame of Man of La Mancha: Cervantes has been imprisoned, as has everyone on stage but the motorcycle jacketed guards, by the Inquisition for crimes against the Inquisition. Cervantes in turn is put on trial by the prisoners for his theatrical baggage, a trunk of costumes, props, and a manuscript the guards dump. To save himself, his manservant, and his story, Cervantes acts out the story of Alonso Quijana, a middle-aged, middle-class man who imagines himself to be Don Quixote, a Knight-Errant of La Mancha, and his quest to dream the impossible dream in a world of lies, mendacity, and hypocrisy.

The constant shifting between Cervantes’ tale of Don Quixote with Cervantes’ present predicament in the prison takes on a fuller resonance under Birch’s direction. This is a focused cast of NYSTI regulars, and, as with Fiorello! last year, it’s a production that has contemporary relevance. Though it may be difficult to conceive of a time when people could be imprisoned by religious fundamentalists in control of the courts and the government, Birch and company make that parallel to the 17th century seem frighteningly contemporary. Only two false notes, a banal fight between Quixote and a gang of ruffians and the editing out of Aldonza’s (Michelle Dawson, who sings as beautifully as she acts) rape by the thugs—depicted here as her mere capitulation, as if that were less offensive than force—mar what is otherwise musical perfection. Birch’s Man of La Mancha achieves that theatrical rarity: It allows you to believe. And even as Cervantes goes to the Inquisition at the musical’s penultimate moment, the ending has the full cast in their contemporary black leather and denim standing and delivering a full-souled “Impossible Dream” which rouses that belief.

Well Matched

A Walk in the Woods
By Lee Blessing, directed by Regge Life Capital Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 20.

Flash back to the 1980s. Outside Geneva, Switzerland, a seasoned arms-treaty negotiator from the Soviet Union and his newly arrived American counterpart, an earnest young technocrat, are taking a walk. Soon they will face each other across the bargaining table, but for now, the Russian is playfully baiting his uptight opponent. To the younger man, the Russian seems cool to the point of ennui over this little matter of nuclear annihilation. Doesn’t he realize that the two of them are the only thing standing between mankind and world peace? Today, when things are so chaotic that dealing with a skittish superpower seems like a walk in the park, it’s hard to believe people ever got worked up over the Cold War. And yet, A Walk in the Woods is far from being a historical artifact of a time whose concerns are no longer our own.

For one thing, Blessing’s Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated play is so well- written—and Capital Rep’s production so smoothly directed by Regge Life and played by Charles Stransky as the Russian, Andrey Botvinnik, and Jay Edwards as the American, John Honeyman—that it would be worth seeing even if it were just a period piece. But it’s impossible to watch these dueling diplomats thrust and parry, the one deadly serious, the other just looking for a little frivolity, without asking ourselves one of the play’s biggest questions: namely, whether the goal our government tells the world it’s working toward is what it really wants at all.

It’s a pleasure to let Blessing’s well-matched adversaries take us on a roller-coaster ride of humor, intensity, and regret. Rejecting the usual rough-and-ready “cowboy” persona for his American, the playwright has made Andrey the confident, relaxed character and John the doctrine-spouting drone. As Andrey, Stransky reminded me of a sort of dapper and intellectual Lou Costello, deliberately playing dumb for the sheer entertainment of watching his straight man squirm, but not in an unfriendly way. When Andrey scoffs that the new American arms expert can’t even speak Russian, John replies that he speaks “technical Russian.”

“That’s like saying, ‘I speak algebra!’” Andrey shoots back.

For his part, Edwards as John loosens up with every scene, becoming less stilted, and more human. As Andrey congratulates John on his growing ability to bait the Russian in turn, it becomes clear that the older man is not trying to best his counterpart so much as to educate him. Are their two governments really intent on getting rid of their arsenals? Without nuclear warheads, he tells John, their countries would be “nothing more than a rich and powerful Canada and an enormous Poland.” If the world really wanted peace, Andrey observes, there would be “millions of us” and only two soldiers.

Since the days of détente, Star Wars, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the world has undergone a sea change. Eastern Europe has crawled out from under the heavy fist of repressive governments, and global destruction has been outsourced to a number of freelance operatives, both capitalistic and ideological. The question of whether it’s worthwhile to work for peace is, if anything, murkier than it was 20 years ago. But thankfully, as A Walk in the Woods shows, the question of whether two enemies can become friends may still be open for negotiation.

—Kathy Ceceri

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