Elbows bent, hands dancing in the air, director Dipankar Mukherjee told a post-show audience for Don Quixote de la Minny that he'd worked with his cast to develop a "vocabulary of gestures" for the play. Indeed, movement is constant in Teatro Del Pueblo's newest production, which sets Cervantes's story in contemporary Minneapolis and places its lunatic hero on the back of an unseen motorcycle with an imaginary cardboard helmet on his head.
While most actors interpret this role as a croaking, emaciated figure, the Don Quixote played by José Alfredo Panelli could have stepped out of a Robert Rodriguez film. He growls and struts around the stage with a slick panther prowl, emphatically jabbing with his hands--often, and perhaps intentionally, resembling the gestures of director Mukherjee. Panelli's Don Quixote might as well be toting a guitar case filled with pistols, but instead he carries a long staff, which he uses less as a weapon than as a dance partner. "You should come with me," the mad knight cries out, waving his staff, "for sooner or later an adventure will arise!" Nodding, Pedro R. Bayon (as Sancho Panza) mimes riding a tiny scooter alongside Don Quixote's mighty two-wheeler, calling out his dreams of wealth and fame. The two men seem both oddly dignified and absolutely bonkers--and who knew that actors could improvise a vocabulary of gestures to represent that?
The play's remaining cast of four women ebbs and flows around Panelli and Bayon like a troubled sea, narrating the story and assuming its many characters. They alternate between encouraging the adventurers and discouraging them, and their dialogue is often unabashedly daffy. Hardly surprising, as this adaptation was authored by Anne García-Romera, who wrote the weird family melodrama Santa Concepción (performed earlier this year by the Cheap Theatre), which had a similar taste for preposterousness. This being Minnesota, the four-woman chorus suggests a suitable villain for the duo: Paul Bunyan. Panelli scowls and flails his hands and staff, dissatisfied, saying, "I am terribly fond of Paul Bunyan, lumberjack hero of the Midwest!"
Playwright García-Romera, perhaps having seen one too many masked Peruvian wrestlers, gives her characters a compromise. After pausing for a moment's thought, the chorus resumes swirling around Don Quixote, letting him know that there is a giant named Peter Bunyan, an evil twin to the lumberjack hero.
In the post-show discussion, set and lighting designer Tom Mays explained that whenever possible, he chose not to include a prop in the production, feeling that the audience would do a better job with their imagination than he could ever do with a literal representation. In this instance, he was correct, as at the mention of the evil twin I got an exact image: the wicked Leonardo DiCaprio from The Man in the Iron Mask, rising 300 feet into the air and fussily straightening out winding rivers. This thought was quite entertaining, and I looked forward to imagining Don Quixote and Sancho Panza roaring up on their hogs to join the spectacle.
Unfortunately, elsewhere this minimal approach does the play a disservice. Don Quixote is only mad when his claims stand in defiance of reality, but there is no reality on the stage at the Mixed Blood Theater; there is only an artful arrangement of boxes and a few chairs. If Don Quixote says that he is battling an evil giant, and I look up and see Leonardo DiCaprio looming above me, who is to say the two of us are wrong? Just a chorus of naysayers who dance around the stage--and they are hardly credible (I've never seen a chorus executing their strophe and antistrophe like some ceremonial do-si-do.) Don Quixote is only noble when he is mad, groping for a time when people behaved according to a code of honor. Not finding this, invents it. In this production, we don't know how much of what he gropes for is real and how much imagined--hell, it all seems to be imagined, even his nonexistent cardboard helmet. At least Leo is real, I feel certain of that.
No act of the imagination is required to interpret the Third Eye Production of John Ford Noonan's A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, as the title not only describes the play's only two characters, but pretty effectively summarizes the plot. Adena Brumer plays a nutty Southern gal who bursts into the Westchester County home of a short-tempered but desperately lonely housewife (Ann Michels, who snaps at Brumer like an excitable toy poodle). Over endless cups of coffee the two women alternate between infuriating each other and changing their lives for the better. The cast of White Chicks brings more to the table than just mugs filled with joe. They knock about their tiny set (which looks quilted, somehow) like giddy, drunken sailors, screaming at and then embracing each other. They're quite fun to watch, even though I felt certain I had already seen this play.
In fact, I was thinking of Shivaree at the Theatre in the Round, which features a very similar Southern character. I am starting to get the idea that the moment you head to the opposite end of the Mason-Dixon line, you are surrounded by adorable, eccentric belles who want nothing more than to tidy up your emotional loose ends. It almost makes me want to strap on my cardboard helmet, pack up my guitar case, and hop onto my Harley--but those things don't really exist. Then again, I suspect the belles don't exist either. Ah, well, I will always have Leo.