Writ­ers The­atre pro­duc­tion a quirky meta- style riff on the beloved Spanish knight

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINMENT - HEDY WEISS Fol­low Hedy Weiss on Twit­ter: @ HedyWeis­sCritic Email: hweiss@ sun­times. com

Both Miguel de Cer­vantes and Wil­liam Shake­speare died in 1616. But last year, when it came time to cel­e­brate the 400th an­niver­sary of the deaths of th­ese writ­ers — one who forged the Golden Age of Spanish lit­er­a­ture, and the other widely agreed to be the great­est writer in the English lan­guage — it was the Bard of Avon, with his 37 plays and hun­dreds of char­ac­ters who, to a great ex­tent, crowded out the cre­ator of Don Quixote.

Now, a cor­rec­tive has ar­rived in the form of the Writ­ers The­atre pro­duc­tion of “Quixote: On the Con­quest of Self,” the quirky, brainy, play­ful and de­cid­edly “meta” med­i­ta­tion on Cer­vantes and his great­est “invention” — that won­der­fully mad Spanish knight at the cen­ter of his mon­u­men­tal novel.

As it hap­pens, this play was cre­ated for the Cer­vantes an­niver­sary by the Mex­ico- based the­ater artists Mon­ica Hoth and Clau­dio Valdes Kuri. And Kuri, who also is re­spon­si­ble for the show’s in­ge­nious di­rec­tion, knew that Chicago ac­tor Henry Godinez, who he had met years ear­lier, was just the man to fi­nesse its English lan­guage pro­duc­tion. ( The zesty trans­la­tion is the work of Ge­orgina Es­co­bar.)

At one point in the novel, Cer­vantes writes of Quixote, the Spanish no­ble­man who has spent far too much time por­ing over chival­ric ro­mances: “Fi­nally, from so lit­tle sleep­ing and so much read­ing, his brain dried up and he went com­pletely out of his mind.” This makes it only fit­ting that our first glimpse of Quixote finds him lit­er­ally up­ended. Ly­ing on the floor, en­cased in a crazy patch­work suit of ar­mor ( a won­der­ful cos­tume by Sanja Manakoski), his legs are in mid- air, and like a tor­toise strug­gling to right him­self, he tries des­per­ately to grab hold of a book that is just out of reach.

When he fi­nally does man­age to get back on his feet, this Quixote is charm­ingly self- mock­ing and hip, ac­knowl­edg­ing that his name is widely known, that by now he has tran­scended into academia, and mu­si­cals, and Google- land, and that his read­er­ship is pur­ported to be sec­ond in num­ber only to the Bi­ble. He also quips that he is quite sure most peo­ple have never made it all the way through the two books that Cer­vantes ( per­haps with the help of oth­ers) wrote about him.

Clearly Quixote is suf­fer­ing from some­thing of an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis, although the one thing he is sure of is that his spirit shall never fail. He also knows that the at­tempt to do good re­quires great courage and can be a mill­stone around one’s neck. He will warn you, too, that apa­thy is a great mon­ster, and that the lack of will to make a dif­fer­ence in this world is a ter­ri­ble thing.

Along the way, this Quixote — a cre­ation of the past who is very much in touch with the present — en­gages mem­bers of the au­di­ence in ways that are both funny and charm­ing.

But now comes a se­ri­ous spoiler alert.

It in­volves the lively girl in jeans and a Moto jacket who ini­tially seems like just an­other au­di­ence “vol­un­teer,” though one with an ex­cep­tional level of smarts, style and ac­tive en­gage­ment who is more than happy to en­gage Quixote in con­ver­sa­tion. And yes, Emma Ladji ( whose photo is kept out of all pub­lic­ity for a rea­son) is a ringer. But the young ac­tress is so nat­u­ral, and so be­guil­ingly sassy in her ini­tial en­gage­ment with Godinez, that she might very well fool you for a while, and her ar­rival in­jects just the sort of youth­ful diver­sion and fem­i­nine spark needed to bal­ance the rich- voiced Godinez, whose char­ac­ter is at once droll and high­minded. Both ac­tors also are fleet and flex­i­ble enough to som­er­sault with ease and dance with panache, with help from ac­ro­batic ad­vi­sor Sylvia Her­nan­dez- DiS­tasi and chore­og­ra­pher Billy Siegen­feld.

Wor­thy of spe­cial men­tion, too, is the stark, mood- al­ter­ing work of light­ing de­signer Alexan­der Ridgers that sculpts an oth­er­wise empty stage. Empty of “fur­ni­ture” per­haps, but full of a play that holds fast to hope and ide­al­ism.


Henry Godinez stars in “Quixote: On the Con­quest of Self.”

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