Upon exiting the Space Theatre after a recent performance of the Denver Center Theatre Company's current production of Don Quixote, a boy no older than twelve turned to his mother and said, "That was even weirder than The Master of Two Servants." To which his mother haltingly replied, "Servant of Two Masters." Undeterred by her gentle correction, the young man punctuated his right-on assessment of Pavel Dobrusky and Luan Schooler's world-premiere play (based on the character of Don Quixote created by Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes) with a one-word, conversation-ending riposte: "Whatever."
It proved to be a succinct summation of the rambling epic. For despite the handful of excellent performances and the many dazzling special effects that frame the production's brightest moments, this 140-minute mishmash ultimately proves to be a self-indulgent, upside-down, anti-climactic exercise. It's bound to leave audience members murmuring (in-between a few bear-sized yawns) some deadly epithets of their own.
A chuckling Cervantes (Archie Smith) begins the play by telling theatergoers that to read any meaning into this patchwork collection of stories and epigrams is folly--a clever theatrical device that effectively absolves Dobrusky and Schooler of any responsibility for failure (the two co-direct the show, which Dobrusky also designed with Milan David). It also opens the door to the possibility that if their haphazard efforts are somehow successful, they might be interpreted by an audience as having been cut from the whole cloth of their own genius and not that of Cervantes.
We're quickly introduced to Don Quixote (Shawn Elliott), a delusional knight who's bent on saving the world from evil (he's suffered a severe head wound), and his faithful servant, Sancho Panza (Anthony Powell). For the remainder of Act One, the two tilt at windmills, do battle with a flock of hostile sheep and generally run afoul of the local gentry. Quixote even mistakes a common whore, Maritornes (Kate Gleason), for his obligatory chivalric love; he also erroneously believes that the lingerie-clad, whip-cracking Altisidora (Susan Spencer) is a vision of angelic purity. To make matters worse, Quixote's niece (Jennifer Regan) and a priest (Clark Middleton) conspire to lock up the pathetic old man instead of offering him some much-needed compassion. In fact, they lead the charge to destroy the authors who have inspired Quixote's dreams by burning every book except the Holy Scriptures. At a recent performance, some audience members whispered "Amen!" when the Bible-thumping padre chucked a few offending tomes into the simulated hellfire that roared beneath the stage floor.
But Act One's fractured fairy tale is all but abandoned in Act Two, when most of Cervantes's delightful characters are inexplicably replaced by a repulsive group of Eastern European sadomasochistic disco denizens. Illuminated by Seventies black-light effects, bedecked in underwear and spiked heels and sporting the occasional cat-o'-nine-tails, several of the play's characters prance on stage and mutter to one another while a few others wander about carrying oversized stuffed animals. While the directors might intend this strange scene to underscore their point that one's dreams can quickly become nightmares, this grotesque, nonsensical Cirque du Dobrusky (replete with trapeze artists and scowling jesters) only serves to confuse spectators who thought they were making the trip downtown to see a classic tale about a hopelessly idealistic man and his relentlessly pragmatic squire. Which, judging from the production's advertisements, they have every right to expect.
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To their credit, all of the performers execute Dobrusky and Schooler's version of the story with finesse, even during Act Two's scenes of silliness. In particular, Elliott's splendid portrait of Quixote reveals the actor's flair for shading and coloring his lines with a poet's sensitivity. In addition to cutting a fine figure when he sets out to right the world's wrongs atop his wooden hobbyhorse, Elliott also manages to evoke his share of pathos when Quixote curses deaf heaven for having been laid low by the very folk who ought to care for him most.
Powell delights as the phlegmatic Sancho, artfully combining his character's stiletto-like sense of humor and wide-eyed opportunism to deliver a series of satirical comments that are remarkable for their lack of bitterness. And Gleason's hilarious portrait of the dim-witted but saucy slattern is a model of controlled spontaneity. For instance, when Quixote prompts Maritornes to create an appropriately regal-sounding name for herself, the impish Gleason masterfully strings together several unrelated but famous monikers (which Quixote dutifully recites each time he addresses her) and, after a perfectly timed pause, places the crowning touch on her newly invented title by adding "of Troy!" to the list.
But as the twisted machinations of Act Two attest, this production isn't just weirder than the DCTC's recent production of The Servant of Two Masters. It's more like a Cuisinarted version of the DCTC's entire season that's made it only halfway through Dobrusky and Schooler's bizarre fermenting stage. To be sure, it's an artist's prerogative to test (and obliterate if need be) an art form's established boundaries and limits. It's also true that an artist must be free to fail in order to learn. Still, it's just as important to realize that when such on-the-job training occurs at the expense of the paying public, lame experimental attempts such as this debacle (preview performances of which reportedly ran nearly an hour longer than the present version) don't elicit understanding from theatergoers as much as they provoke outright contempt.
Don Quixote, through June 13 at the Space Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.