Spoiler alert: the end­ing ru­ins it

Chicago Sun-Times - - AGENDA - By TONY ADLER | CHICAGO READER v QUIXOTE: ON THE CON­QUEST OF SELF Through 12/ 17: Wed- Fri 7: 30 PM, Sat 3 and 7: 30 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM, Tue 7: 30 PM, Writ­ers The­atre, 325 Tu­dor Court, Glen­coe, 847- 242- 6000, writ­er­sthe­atre.org, $ 35-$ 80. @ taadler

Henry Godinez isn’t the Don Quixote type. That is, he doesn’t much re­sem­ble the pop­u­lar im­age of that fa­mously mis­guided knight er­rant, prop­a­gated by ev­ery­body f rom Dau­mier and Doré to Dali and Pi­casso. Based, I guess, on a brief de­scrip­tion that ap­pears at the be­gin­ning of Miguel de Cer­vantes’s vast 400- year- old comic novel, The Adventures of

Don Quixote, we’ve come to pic­ture the man from La Man­cha as your ba­sic long drink of water. Godinez, by con­trast, is com­pact and mus­cu­lar. What makes him con­vinc­ing as the ti­tle fig­ure in Mónica Hoth and Clau­dio Valdés Kuri’s oth­er­wise frus­trat­ing Quixote: On the

Con­quest of Self, run­ning now at Writ­ers The­atre, isn’t his looks so much as his great, good­hu­mored en­ergy. His cracked charm.

To be ac­cu­rate, Godinez doesn’t play Quixote in the con­ven­tional sense. We’re not meant to be­lieve that he’s act­ing the role of the delu­sional old gen­tle­man who, hav­ing read one too many books on chivalry, em­barks on quests that al­ways turn into fol­lies. No, Godinez is sup­posed to em­body Quixote the lit­er­ary con­struct: aware that he’s a fic­tion, an­gry and em­bar­rassed at the silent tyran­nies of his au­thor ( whose iden­tity be­wil­ders him), afraid of the fate that waits for him on the fi­nal page, and, in the mean­time, strain­ing against the story that holds him cap­tive.

We hear him be­fore we see him, groan­ing and whin­ing some­where in the shad­ows while a spot­light pin­points a hard­bound copy of Cer­vantes’s book, ly­ing open, spine down on the stage. When the lights come up, we find Quixote in vir­tu­ally the same po­si­tion as the book: legs in the air, body bal­anced over the cer­vi­cal area of his own spine. In the physics of this show, Quixote is some­how bod­ily teth­ered, not just to his nar­ra­tive but to the pa­per- and­board re­al­ity of the ob­ject that houses it. He has to main­tain his con­torted po­si­tion un­til an au­di­ence mem­ber can be in­duced to ful­fill his in­struc­tions, first, to read a pas­sage from the book, and then to close it. The clos­ing frees him to move about at will, much as Dorothy Gale’s ap­pli­ca­tion of oil frees the Tin Man in The Wiz­ard of Oz.

The con­ceit sounds com­pli­cated, but, in this stag­ing by coau­thor Kuri, it can be lots of fun. Quixote’s de­pen­dence on the kind­ness of strangers forces him to bring a steady stream of civil­ians on­stage to help him read bal­lads, mime scenes, and oth­er­wise emote. This is where the afore­men­tioned cracked charm comes in handy. By turns peremp­tory and sweet, Godinez is great at wran­gling helpers, vol­un­tary and re­luc­tant. And his ath­leti­cism, ex­pressed in what look like pun­ish­ing som­er­saults, de­vised un­der the su­per­vi­sion of ac­ro­batic ad­viser Sylvia Her­nan­dez- DiS­tasi ( a co­founder with me of the Ac­tors Gym­na­sium), give his per­for­mance a feel­ing of go- for- broke aban­don. A hodge­podge set of ar­mor, dec­o­rated by cos­tume de­signer Sanja Manakoski with bot­tle tops, pull tabs, li­cense plates, and flat­tened beer cans, height­ens the an­tic, im­pro­vi­sa­tional at­mos­phere.

The problems arise well into the 90- minute per­for­mance, when the script turns from telling this strange Quixote’s story to mak­ing him serve an in­spi­ra­tional mes­sage. ( Spoiler alert: I’m about to dis­cuss a cru­cial sur­prise. Stop read­ing if you don’t want it ru­ined for you.)

At a cer­tain point Quixote asks for a show of hands from those who’ve read Cer­vantes’s mas­ter­piece in its for­mi­da­ble en­tirety. He en­gages one of the re­spon­dents, a young wo­man called Xó­chitl ( Aztec for “flower”), and they ban­ter rather thrillingly about the novel she pro­fesses to love— so thrillingly, in fact, that I con­sid­ered my­self lucky to be present for the ex­change. What were the odds? Well, as it turned out, they were ex­cel­lent: it very soon be­comes clear that Xó­chitl is a ringer. Played by Emma Ladji, she’s there to push the piece into its mawk­ish fi­nal phase.

Look­ing back, I’m a lit­tle star­tled at the depth of my re­ac­tion to the gim­mick. It hit me hard, as a be­trayal of all the gen­uine invention that had gone on be­fore— of my in­vest­ment in Godinez’s mar­velous per­for­mance. More im­por­tant,

Quixote loses any claim to in­ter­nal in­tegrity at that point, meta­mor­phos­ing awk­wardly, re­duc­tively, child­ishly into the sort of thing you might ex­pect to see tour­ing to schools as part of a self- es­teem pro­gram (“We’re de­feat­ing the Mon­ster of Apa­thy!”). Hoth and Kuri even take a page from Peter Pan, hav­ing Xó­chitl so­licit our dreams rather than our ap­plause in or­der to work a cli­mac­tic mir­a­cle. What a crock. What a dis­ap­point­ment.

Henry Godinez MICHAEL BROSILOW

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