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Octavio Solis’s ‘Quixote Nuevo’ quest

The Oregon playwright's contemporary twist on Cervantes' classic tale has tilted at a few shifting windmills of its own on its long journey to Portland Center Stage.

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Raúl Cardona as Papa Calaca/Cardenio and and Herbert Siguenza as Quijano/Quixote in South Coast Repertory’s production of Octavio Solis’s “Quixote Nuevo.” Tony Sancho will play Quijano/Quixote in the Portland Center Stage production, which begins preview performances on Saturday, March 2. Photo: Jenny Graham/Courtesy of South Coast Rep (2023)

In the Renaissance-era Spanish novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Cervantes, the nobleman Alonso Quijano believes he is a medieval knight. So, he  embarks on a long, eventful journey to bring back chivalry.

The play Quixote Nuevo has had its own long, cross-epochal journey – undertaken by a prominent Oregon playwright. His adaptation of a daunting epic evolved over 15 years.

That modern-day Don Quixote by Octavio Solis is finally heading back to Oregon, where it began as a tantalizing idea in 2008. The well-traveled show runs at Portland Center Stage, March 2 to 31, in a co-production with Seattle Rep and South Coast Repertory, in Costa Mesa, Calif.

In its recent Seattle run, Quixote Nuevo charmed critics and audiences with its picante blending of Spanish and English, its mirthful farcical bits and bittersweet poignancy, its Tejano-flavored music, and nods to Mexican folklore and Chicano Teatro-style theatrics. But the script, given a colorful and rousing staging by Lisa Portes, did not come easy.

From his home in rural Southern Oregon, Solis candidly reflected on his own odyssey with Quixote Nuevo during a multi-theater, trial-and-error creative process similar to that employed by the late August Wilson on some of his plays.

Solis says the notion of adapting the 1605 novel about the delusional knight came in 2008, from Tim Bond. At the time Bond was an associate artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (He is now OSF’s recently appointed artistic director.)

OSF had already presented two plays (El Paso Blue and Gibraltar) by the prolific Solis​. He embraced the challenge of bringing ​ to the stage the Cervantes epic. It follows the self-proclaimed medieval knight on a tragicomic quest through Spain, tilting his sword at windmills – his imaginary foes.

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“Tim gave me the commission, and said do what you want to do with it,” Solis recalls. “I thought, great, let’s just do the novel!”

Diving into the 18th century English language version of the text by Scottish writer Tobias Smollett (which Solis calls “fantastic, it’s like Shakespeare translated it”), and Edith Grossman’s respected 2003   translation, Solis first concocted a script he now considers “faithful to a fault” to Cervantes. The two-part epic novel is rich in dramatic action but also in ruminative and philosophical passages. And it weighs in at over a thousand pages.

Playwright Octavio Solis at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019. Photo: HowlRound Theatre Commons/Wikimedia Commons

Solis immersed himself in research of the Golden Age literary flowering that Cervantes, Calderon (whose work he has also adapted), and other seminal Spanish writers were part of. And his initial Don Quixote play was well received in its 2009 OSF debut. (Marty Hughley’s review in The Oregonian praised the production for its deft juggling of “the mundane and the fantastical”).  

But Solis had second thoughts about his close mirroring of the novel. He eventually decided to move his Quixote’s odyssey to the present day, and to the place where he grew up: the fraught U.S.-Mexican borderlands in Texas.  

While juggling other play projects and a memoir (Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border), Solis crafted another draft, which Shakespeare Dallas mounted in 2017. Solis notes with a laugh, “It didn’t work either — though at least it was [set] in Texas!”

California Shakespeare Festival presented the retitled Quixote Nuevo a year later. And the theater’s artistic head, Eric Ting, gave Solis some welcome advice: “He said I needed to make Don Quixote my own. And he was absolutely right.”

Solis drew new inspiration from his own life.  It impacted his understanding of his modern-day protagonist Jose Quijano, a “quixotic” retired professor of Spanish literature. “My mother was in an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease,” notes Solis, “and I realized that this is what Quixote’s problem was, too. He literally thought he was somebody else.”

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Though still a comical, ironic and sympathetic figure, the wandering would-be knight “is also dangerous. He has sharp weapons, can hurt others, gets lost and beat up himself. He needs a Sancho Panza to protect him.”

 In Quixote Nuevo, the sidekick Sancho is a hawker of iced fruit bars (paletas) who gets around by bicycle cart, not by donkey. And he is part of the professor’s closeknit extended family.

More drafts and more productions followed – in Hartford, Boston, Houston. Then in 2020, the Covid epidemic broke out and a Bethesda, Md., run was postponed. “I lucked out,” says Solis, who took a hiatus to complete Quixote Nuevo and collaborate with director Portes.

In the many comic bits, “I took my cues from Cervantes – all that humor, scatological and earthy and bawdy.” But on a serious note, Solis also wove into the script his view of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “vile demonization of undocumented migrants to the U.S.” (In the play, Quixote and Sancho encounter desperate asylum seekers hiding from border guards).

The playwright (whose Mexican parents came to the U.S., settling to raise a family in El Paso) says he is using a theatrical “bully pulpit” to show that the much-maligned refugees crowding our borders “are not monsters, demons and rapists. They are people who want hope.”

Following its recent runs in Costa Mesa and Seattle, and its Portland stand, Solis hopes Quixote Nuevo will be mounted by more regional theaters, “especially in cities with large Hispanic populations — like Chicago, Los Angeles, Arizona,” he says.

For now, Solis is glad his Quixote is circling back home to Oregon. He serves on OSF’s board of directors  and (as usual) is working on assorted writing projects. An intriguing one: a play about Ted Williams, a brilliant and volatile 20th century baseball superstar, who concealed his Mexican heritage in fear of anti-Hispanic backlash.

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Quixote Nuevo

  • By: Octavio Solis.
  • Where: Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., Portland.
  • When: March 2-28. Preview performances March 2, 3, 6, 7; opening night March 8.
  • Ticket and Schedule Information: Here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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