When someone's said to be quixotic, it's meant that they're too impractical and idealistic for their own good. Enter "Man of La Mancha, written by Dale Wasserman, with words and music by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh. Directed by Drew Fitzsimmons for the San Pedro Theatre Club, this hugely entertaining production doesn't confirm or deny the practicality of chivalry, courtesy, and civility, it celebrates the quest.
It's a complex tale, though you don't notice it because you're submerged in the character of Quixote. It's told as a story within a story. Fitzsimmons does a very good job to keep the story lines separate. Cervantes is about to be questioned by the Spanish Inquisition. In his possession is an unfinished manuscript for what will become "Don Quixote." Not just on trial for his life, his fellow prisoners - murderers, crooks - try him as well. As evidence he has them play out the roles in the story's he's writing. The prisoners' reenactment of Cervantes' manuscript that makes up the bulk of the production.
The story describes the well known, outlandish adventures of one Don Quixote (Rocky Miller). In the company of his loyal-against-all-odds sideman Sancho Panza (Michael-Anthony Nozzi), he gets thrashed by windmills that he thinks are giants. He gets beaten to within an inch of his life by anyone foolish enough to impugn the beauty of Aldonza/Dulcinea (Michelle Zelina), the waitress/prostitute/paragon of virtue of the low-life inn he thinks is a castle. And he becomes a knight through the authority of an innkeeper/king (John Russell). These scenes are hilarious. Miller's Quoxote is so sincere, so charismatic, and so deluded that you can't help but root for him. Likewise, Nozzi's Sancho epitomizes the faithful servant that, even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still believes in his madcap mission. Especially funny are Nozzi's Sancho's responses to the question he's always asked, "Why do you follow such a lunatic?" "I don't know!"
Quixote's sally-forth adventures are well done. In these scenes, James Rodriguez's versatile and evocative sets make the intimate stage seem more spacious than it is. That, by the way, is a good metaphor for Quixote's imagination: soaring yet ultimately grounded. We're up close to the action, which makes us relish all the more Quixote's disastrous confrontations with reality, a point literally pounded home in the "The Knight of the Mirrors" song.
The sets also serve as the claustrophobic hellish holding chamber of the Spanish Inquisition. As lyrical and lovely as the chivalrous scenes might be, Cervantes' circumstances are a lot gloomier. This is where you see Miller at his best. As we see him led up the stairs to face an uncertain fate, all that's gone before - windmills, sorcerers, virgin maidens - has simply been a means to an end to deal with a nasty, nasty world - and not an end in itself.
Miller's Quixote is both charismatic and pragmatic. This makes his character credible. Sure he's, well, crazy; but his lunacy has a context. His bipolarity takes us to giddy heights and it drags us down to hellish depths. One is the remedy for the other. It's his knowing, in rare, lucid moments, that it's playacting that makes us appreciate his character even more. After all, as he sings in "The Impossible Dream," the dream might be distant but its the relentless quest that matters.
You can see how well it's directed acted if you look at the reactions of Nozzi's Sancho and Zelina's Aldonza to the madman who's commandeered their lives. Nozzi nails the allegiance of one who follows someone simply because this person is so unlike anyone he's ever met. Zelina's Aldonza nails the initial incredulity at and then magical comprehension of the message this alleged madman bears. It's through her that you see the significance of Quixote's knight errantry. He's a beacon of hope in a nasty, nasty world.
Performances are 8pm, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 2pm, Sunday. The play runs through August 24. Tickets are $45 -$55. The Theatre is located at 624 S. Pacific Avenue, San Pedro, CA 90731. For more information, call (310) 773-4964 or visit www.thesanpedrotheatreclub.com.