Portland Opera Puccini

Review: A splendid ‘Quixote Nuevo’ at Portland Center Stage

Octavio Solis's contemporary spin on "Don Quixote" reimagines the wise man/mad man hero in a tale that tumbles brightly and searingly across the Mexican/Texan border.

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"Quixote Nuevo" at Portland Center Stage, a co-production with South Coast Repertory and Seattle Rep. Photo by Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
“Quixote Nuevo” at Portland Center Stage, a co-production with South Coast Repertory and Seattle Rep. Photo by Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

As my friend and I readied ourselves for Portland Center Stage’s production of Quixote Nuevo– described as a “reimagining” of the beloved 17th-century Spanish novel Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes–she asked me for a primer on the classic story. I recounted the essential plot of an elderly man who seems to be in cognitive decline and imagines himself a knight on a heroic quest, and who is always taking on unwinnable battles that appear crazy to everyone else.

“Sounds like a public defender,” she said, knowing that role from the inside—and indeed, I also have long been compared to Quixote by the person who loves me the most, who affectionately describes me as always tilting at windmills (the foe that Quixote mistakes for a giant). The reference captures some of Quixote’s enduring allure.

Playwright Octavio Solis has beautifully captured that essence in this reimagining, which sets the story among current-day Tejanos in the fictional town of La Plancha along the Texas border with Mexico. His protagonist, Jose Quijano, is a retired literature professor specializing in Cervantes who is losing his grip on reality. He is becoming too much of a burden for his sister Magdalena, who seeks to move him into a nursing facility. She has gathered support from a minister and a therapist to assist her in coaxing him there, but Quijano, fancying himself a knight—Quixote, naturally–gives them the slip to embark on his own heroic quest.

The production works by transporting us into not only the physical world where the characters live, but also into the world inside Quijano’s head, where he is often surrounded by dancing and singing calacas (skeletons like you would see in a celebration of Day of the Dead), and where he receives wisdom and warnings from Papa Calaca, who describes himself as “the dimmer of your light, the rigor in your mortis, Papa Muerte with all his bony angels.”

It would take more than one viewing to capture all that is happening in their interactions, but with portentous energy, the players convey what is real for Quijano/Quixote, and that it may be more real than others understand.

Manny/Sancho Panza (Ernie González Jr., with "Paletas de Frutas" bars) and José/Quixote (Tony Sancho) rolling through an old/new tale. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Manny/Sancho Panza (Ernie González Jr., with “Paletas de Frutas” bars) and José/Quixote (Tony Sancho) rolling through an old/new tale. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

An evocative scenic design by Efren Delgadillo Jr. (adjusted for three different stages in this co production with South Coast Repertory Theater and Seattle Repertory Theater) transports us to the borderlands of Texas and Mexico and also evokes the hero’s journey along the borderlands between life and death, between the “real” world and the world people can’t see.

Along the way, Quixote encounters Border Patrol agents—the giants of his world–and interferes with the harm they intend to perpetrate on a group of migrants. He visits a bar that he sees as a castle, and charms and bemuses its patrons. And he acquires a comical companion, Manny (his Sancho Panza), who becomes his “squire.”

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Manny’s first impetus is an amused and protective impulse, but he comes to an appreciation of what Quixote is perceiving. Quixote has that effect on people, a magic that also works on the audience. The music and dancing, along with Quixote’s utter commitment and joy, compel and grip tightly both delusion and heroism.

Solis’s vision, under the wise direction of Lisa Portes and embodied by a versatile and committed cast, captures something important about heroes: They see things that “sane” people can’t. We are too busy adapting and conforming to the sanctioned disorder and violence around us.

Many of the cast have traveled with this production to all three cities and have worked in prior productions, including the powerful Raùl Cardona as Papa Calaca and a charming Ernie González as Manny. Tony Sancho is new to the production as Quijano/Quixote, and his performance is a particular delight, balancing boyish enthusiasm with befuddlement that captures the difference between how Quixote feels to himself and how he is perceived by others. The choreography by Marissa Herrera transports the audience into a world of spirits and energy and high stakes.

Madman or the sanest of all? José Quijano/Quixote (Tony Sancho) on his quest. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Madman or the sanest of all? José Quijano/Quixote (Tony Sancho) on his quest. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Perhaps the best feature of this colorful and imaginative production is the use of puppets, designed by Helen Q. Huang, who also designed the wonderful costumes. Quijano/Quixote is driven by a search to reunite with his lost love from his childhood—his Dulcinea–an undocumented girl who was deported back to Mexico and with whom he corresponded for many years.

His memories of her and his quest to reclaim that lost love are conveyed with puppetry, performed by Maya Malan-Gonzalez and Lakin Valdez, standouts in the cast who have traveled with its prior productions. (Malan-Gonzalez has lifelong connections to Portland’s Milagro Theatre, and Valdez last appeared at Portland Center Stage in “Mojada.”)

These sequences further compel the audience into a world where borders and the “American dream” of progress—the nonsense passing as sense in the “real world”—no longer confuse and separate. The journey between worlds in this production compels, delights, and perhaps even persuades.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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