Contestants on the reality cooking show Chopped are tasked with making three dishes that together create a full meal, but frequently the challenges of the “mystery baskets” make for mismatched pairings. French onion soup followed by a spicy Asian taco. A waffle sandwich alongside a zesty gumbo…
Such disjointed combinations come to mind halfway through Mónica Hoth and Claudio Valdés Kuri’s creative interpretation of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, currently running at Writers Theatre. Their take, Quixote: On the Conquest of Self, is both an engaging retelling of some of Quixote’s most famous stories and a modern reflection on the importance of taking a role in ‘authoring one’s own book,’ but the presentation of these two ideas never quite comes together: this dish ultimately comes out half-baked.
The play begins with Quixote (Henry Godinez) upside down, trapped in an awkward position because the story of his life -- that classic novel that inspired so many theatrical and film adaptations -- lies open next to him. With this, the premise of Hoth’s and Kuri’s reimagining quickly becomes clear: when the book is open, Quixote is a character, reenacting his story. When closed, Quixote can comment on his life and speak with the audience, reflecting on the various elements of his story (some which he loathes, others which he loves). What Quixote cannot imagine, and what the audience ultimately helps him discover, is that he might be able to have a hand in rerouting his traditional path. What happens if Quixote, rather than helplessly watching from inside the pages, takes a role in writing his tale?
Without giving too much away (for programs are withheld from the audience until the play’s end for this very purpose), this is one of the many questions which the play ultimately uncovers throughout Quixote’s modern quest. Yet the script spends so much time setting up the ‘twist’ that the two sections, Quixote’s exploration of his story and his latter evaluation of himself as an author, appear almost like two different plays. And, while nuggets of brilliance emerge momentarily, much of the second section feels too didactic and heavy-handed to have the profound effect it seems to seek.
That is not to claim that the play is not enjoyable, though. In fact, Godinez’s incredible energy and captivating stage presence make the first section of the play a lively, engaging piece of theatre, even for those unfamiliar with Quixote’s exploits. Many of the play’s technical elements proved stellar as well. Sanja Manakoski’s costume design for Quixote was incredible in its intricacy, crafting armor that looked traditional at first glance but, upon closer inspection, revealed modern elements weaved throughout. Beer cans, for instance, make up one of the plates, with license plates filling in a gap elsewhere. The effect perfectly blended the show’s classic vs modern aesthetic.
With some script revisions, the rest of the show could embody this theme just as effectively too. In its current state, though, the classic and modern fail to meld.
Review by Emily Schmidt
Quixote: On the Conquest of Self continues through December 17th at Writers Theatre. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.