"Quixote: On the Conquest of Self" -- ★ ★ ★
The folks at Writers Theatre in Glencoe are probably going to hate the following suggestion: Someone should record the company's U.S. premiere of "Quixote: On the Conquest of Self" to be broadcast during pledge drives on PBS.
That's because this mirthful, modern spin on Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century masterpiece of Spanish literature deserves a much wider audience, even though TV screens could only approximate the live experience of "Quixote" in Writers' intimate Gillian Theatre space.
As a largely one-man show, "Quixote" amusingly argues why the delusional, do-gooding Don Quixote -- aka the "Man of La Mancha" -- has endured through the centuries and been embraced on a global scale. But more importantly, "Quixote" powerfully posits that the fictional knight's ideals can function nowadays as self-help mantras for individuals and society at large.
The play's Mexican co-authors Mónica Hoth and Claudio Valdés Kuri (with English translator Georgina Escobar) keep things comically off-kilter from the start. As the lights come up, we see Quixote (the very limber Henry Godinez) in an awkwardly contorted position pleading for assistance.
The play's theatrical conceit is that Quixote is forever bound to repeat the often unfortunate adventures in Cervantes' text. So if his accompanying book on stage falls open to an embarrassing passage -- such as his tilting at windmills -- Quixote will once again get battered and bruised in the process.
But Godinez's Quixote tries to rebel. He goes so far as to question the authorship of his tales while also enlisting (and surprising) select members of the audience to share the stage with him and help prove several contested points.
These devices deployed by Hoth and Kuri, who is also the production's wily director, ensure that "Quixote" makes for fun entertainment as well as an exercise on great literature. At the same time, "Quixote" directly challenges audiences to bring about change so they, too, can be the powerful, positive authors of their own lives.
As Quixote, Godinez wows, commanding the stage both in his masterful storytelling and in his unexpected physical feats (Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi is the "acrobatic advisor"). And Godinez amazingly does all this in costume designer Sanja Manakoski's grab-bag suit of armor -- made up of slogan buttons, bits of old tires, cutup license plates and more to symbolically reinforce how the well-traveled "Don Quixote" has survived through the ages.
Writers' "Quixote" is scenically sparse, though it could be argued that the lack of visuals engages the imagination, much as lighting designer Alexander Ridgers uses a simple effect to evoke massive windmills.
At times, the convention of the text predetermining the action can overstay its welcome and become cloying.
Yet on the whole, "Quixote" is a convincing piece of proactive theater that shows how centuries-old literature can still inspire. That's why "Quixote" would work for PBS: The combo of cultural prestige and enlightening entertainment make this thoughtful play perfect pledge-drive donation bait.
• • •
Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday (select 3 p.m. Wednesday matinees), 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 17
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Area street parking
Rating: For most audiences; includes some adult language