Just days since pregnant Farzana Parveen was stoned with bricks and beaten to death by 20 family members—including her father and brothers—in Pakistan and yet another gang rape in India (allegedly the two victims were subsequently hanged in shame), the Oscar Wilde line, “Life imitates art more than art imitates life,” was turned on its head with the Stratford Festival’s inclusion of Man of La Mancha in the opening week of its madness-themed productions.
Adapted from Dale Wasserman’s teleplay, I, Don Quixote, which was based on Miguel de Cervantes’ brilliant novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and brought to musical life (book by Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion) in the mid-‘60s, the blatant sexism (most especially the group rape at the end of Act I—intermission seldom felt bleaker) just seems wrong in 2014.
Sure, it’s just a play (and also a “defence” play within the overall narrative), yet somewhat akin to the litany of sexual abuse cases willfully ignored by the Catholic Church (not that they can claim exclusivity) and—in the case of aboriginal residential schools—the Canadian government, there comes a moment—even as the fantastical windmills of the author’s creation turned magnificently in the Avon Theatre—when it is to wonder why such a purposely demeaning show needs to be seen anywhere but as an archival curiosity.
Rant complete; on to the performance.
Most certainly, director Robert McQueen’s quest to create a dark, seedy (inmates and trappings) prison (ably assisted by Douglas Paraschuk’s marvellously textured two-storey set along with Kimberly Purtell’s equally moody lighting plot and Dana Osborne’s detail-rich costumes) as the backdrop for the double trial (the Spanish Inquisition and the fictional defence) of Alonso Quijana/Don Quixote (Tom Rooney is simply superb in all aspects of the dominating role) succeeds in nearly every department (one small exception being the—eventually tiresome—sound effect as the drawbridge has its ups and downs).
Choreographer Marc Kimelman uses every inch of the landscape provided, giving a commendable ebb and flow to the company numbers. There’s even a welcome bit of eye candy (“Little Bird, Little Bird”) as the muleteers wash away their grime with false bravado—alas only to soil themselves again during “The Abduction.”
At one with Rooney’s excellence is Steve Ross who matches his master’s skills step for step, melody for melody as Manservant/Sancho Panza.
In the challenging role of Aldonza, Robin Hutton demonstrates admirable grit as she is slung about so mercilessly by the men and delivers her songs with passion and conviction that soars to the heavens even while living in hell on earth.
Conductor Franklin Brasz does a fine job in the pit; Kevin Ramessar’s onstage guitar contributions add further zest and colour to the proceedings.
In many ways a one-song show (“The Impossible Dream” never fails to ignite a crowd), perhaps someone in the theatre community (er, hello there Robert Lepage) might take on the long overdue—perhaps equally impossible—quest of creating Woman of La Mancha as just one small way of adding balance to so many abusive situations that continue—surely must be fiction—to play out on real-life stages every day. JWR