Review: 'La Mancha' feels impossibly new

  • Updated: April 18, 2011 - 1:25 PM

Steven Epp galvanizes this production with such immediacy that it seems we're watching a new show.

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Steven Epp, center, plays Cervantes/Don Quixote, with Luverne Seifert as Sancho and Regina Williams as Aldonza.

Photo: Ten Thousand Things Theater

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A cultured man, frightened for his safety, timidly enters a seething dungeon and through the course of 90 minutes becomes a hero to his fellow unfortunates. "Man of La Mancha" proposes that charismatic imagination fuels this transformation, and the argument has rarely felt so convincing as it does in Ten Thousand Things' current production.

Director Michelle Hensley enjoys stripping musicals of their lacquer and refinishing them with simplicity -- a chancy business that can leach impact from the piece. Hensley's production, though, transcends mere concept, and this "La Mancha" feels like a new play, its essential ideas immediate and constantly consuming our attention with fresh and vigorous assaults.

At the center is actor Steven Epp's singular brilliance as Miguel de Cervantes, the poet-soldier-tax collector thrown amid the criminals for daring to foreclose on a monastery during the Inquisition. Encountering prisoners ready to pronounce their own deleterious verdict, he defends himself by enticing them to act out a play in which he plays Alonso Quijana, whose flinching sanity evokes the persona of Don Quixote.

Epp's Cervantes is less a portrayal than it is a personal compulsion. Each moment burns with honesty, even as he descends into childish madness and self consciously goofs off. Epp constantly grounds the enterprise with Cervantes' nobility, a decency dedicated to transporting the inmates' spirits beyond these bars.

Actor Matt Guidry, ever the gnarly skeptic as Dr. Carrosco, scolds Cervantes's desire to escape through imagination, only to draw the rebuke that too much sanity is madness. Epp is spot on with a character who may act a fool but embodies an eloquent advocacy for greater existence -- an impossible dream.

Hensley's production keys off Epp's performance. Physically taut and musically lean, it is perfectly modulated to reveal tenderness and brutality side by side. Actors confidently indulge the manic burlesque with improvised asides and a loose playfulness -- they are, after all, prisoners making this stuff up. Yet sublime moments of ethereal beauty invade the ridiculous. T. Mychael Rambo lends a gorgeous and aching voice to "Dulcinea;" Epp channels an a cappella vulnerability in "The Impossible Dream."

Luverne Seifert uses the modern-day personality of second banana Andy Richter to represent Cervantes' manservant (who plays Sancho). Actually, his vocal range and madness owe a little to the great Jiminy Glick.

Regina Williams plays Aldonzo with standoffish melancholy and self preservation. She resists Cervantes/Quijana/Quixote's adoration until finally she allows herself to be changed. Tracey Maloney gives her friendly demeanor to the sympathetic Governor.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

  • MAN OF LA MANCHA

    Who: By Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh. Directed by Michelle Hensley for Ten Thousand Things.

    When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. Ends May 8.

    Where: Minnesota Opera Center, 620 N. 1st St., Mpls. (Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., April 29-May 1)

    Tickets: $15-$25. 1-800-838-3006 or www.tenthousandthings.org

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