Playwright: Monica Hoth & Claudia Valdes Kuri, translated by Georgina Escobar
At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. Tickets: 847-242-6000; WritersTheatre.org; $35-$80. Runs through: Dec. 17
Quixote: On the Conquest of Self gives theater veteran Henry Godinez a rare opportunity to be a clown, and Godinez—who generally plays serious roles ( when he takes time from directing and teaching )is worth the ticket price all by himself. I don't mean he's funny ( although he's brilliantly funny ), but that he embraces the profound physical, emotional and philosophical depths of great clowning and the human comedy. Godinez is a masterful comedian because he is a masterful actor.
It doesn't hurt that he plays one of Western culture's most magnificently profound fools, Sir Quixote de la Manchathe passionate, chastely romantic idealist who sees a beautiful impossible world where others see cynicism, self-interest and cupidity. The twist here is that Quixote fights the printed book for control of his narrative, the balance shifting frequently with comic physicality.
Quixote notes early on that the original, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra ( 1547-1616 ), is so long and convoluted that almost no one reads the complete work. Addressing his audience directly from a square, bare black stage, he decries abridgments and musicals before abridging himself, inducing audience members to act out less-familiar sub-stories from the work. First, though, he dispenses with its most famous episode, the one that gave us the expression "tilting at windmills." Godinez is an exquisitely droll guide and manipulator of his helpers, with small ad-libs, as needed.
One audience member turns out to be a plant and joins Quixote for the last half of the 95-minute work. No spoilers intended, but it is a modern young Latina ( Emma Ladji ) who becomes a stand-in for Aldonza/Dulcinea, that most beauteous gentle lady for whom Quixote fights. It's at this point that the piece weds modern themes to classical ones, and raises issues specific to Mexico, where this work originated. Teaching and learning from each other, the Hispanic knight and the Latina lady touch on ecology and forest preservation, illegal immigration and assault. Together they passionately denounce "the monster of Apathy," the heart of indolence that enables evil. Quixote earlier has noted, "When you truly surrender to a cause for the common good, you truly find a strength beyond yourself."
Despite the brilliance of Godinez and his energetic partner, the play's final portion is too precious. The audience is asked to call out hopeful and progressive thoughts to save the dying Quixote, which is too Tinkerbell-do-you-believe-in-fairies for me. Quixote and his lady then send us forth to carry on their mission. "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul," concludes a famous Victorian poem, and that's the take-away of Quixote/Conquest, an iteration of the title's "self" and of Quixote's impossible struggle to emerge from Cervantes' authorship.