We Love Arts: Don Quixote

Ryan Sellers as Sancho Panza and Dan Istrate as Don Quixote, with Natalie Berk as Aldonza, in Synetic Theater's production of Don Quixote. Photo credit: Graeme B. Shaw.

There is nothing on stage in Synetic Theater‘s Don Quixote more expressive than Dan Istrate’s eyes. Which is odd, because they are actually anything but – wide, unseeing, unblinking eyes focused anywhere else except on reality. Matched by his frozen arms in an almost wooden stance, his mad foolhardy knight is like a marionette or a religious icon paraded in a pageant.

That last is an apt metaphor when you consider the pace of this production seems to mimic a Catholic saint’s day pageant, as the icons slowly shake their way down the street. At 100 minutes, Dr. Roland Reed’s adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous novel felt much, much longer. Though the usual high level of physical daring and command we’ve come to expect (and demand) from Synetic’s extremely talented ensemble was on display opening night, the overall effect was somehow muddy.

After several productions featuring expansively creative set design (such as the water stage for King Arthur), director Paata Tsikurishvili has chosen to tone things down and present a minimalist experience. After all, Synetic built its well-deserved reputation by using actors’ bodies to suggest environments to stunning effect. So why doesn’t it quite work with Don Quixote? Certainly this play about a dreamer is full of action, but that action is in the form of multiple vignettes hanging together incohesively, with a dreary sigh.

The fault may lie in the adaptation itself. Though the moments of Istrate’s keen sightliness are riveting when allowed to take focus, the production commits the cardinal sin of feeling joyless, through dialogue that simply fails to engage or enlighten. 

Francesca Jandesek as Dulcinea and Dan Istrate as Don Quixote in Synetic Theater's production of Don Quixote. Photo credit: Graeme B. Shaw.

But it also lacks a cohesive design element. Supposedly inspired by the works of Dali and Bosch, there’s none of the colorful sick magic that imbues their works. Though lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin does an admirable job of illuminating the scene, it’s still a drab view. Especially jarring in Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili’s design is the Disneyland outfit worn by Dulcinea, giving the dream dance sequences with Don Quixote and his love a cheap comic veneer.

As always, the physical commitment of the acting ensemble is top notch. As Don Quixote’s faithful squire Sancho Panza, Ryan Sellers hilariously headbangs his way behind the knight, the perfect comic foil to Istrate’s straight man. Equally engaging is Natalie Berk as both the emotionally pure yet physically frisky Aldonza, and the naughtily evil Altisidora – and she’s one of the few actors onstage able to be vocally interesting as well. And Ryan Tumulty’s Innkeeper does an admirable sketch of the conflicting emotions the pimp develops as Don Quixote wanders into his brothel – from abuse and ridicule to sympathy, and back again.

But these wanderings just don’t add up to much, as we follow Don Quixote de la Mancha on his quest to defend the helpless in order to reap glory so that his imaginary love Dulcinea will know of his good deeds. It’s the classic troubadour’s journey, putting himself in danger for unrequited love. In this adaptation, most of the conflict has been distilled into the mental battle between the knight and his evil adversary Freston (Alex Mills), with a side story of his temptation by Altisidora and subsequent humiliation at her hands. It’s at this humiliating point that Istrate allows us to see Don Quixote actually blink at last, several times, in a shockingly simple moment of restraint that telegraphs so much. It’s poignant not just for the moment itself, but because you wish the entire production had been filled with such truth.

Sadly, there’s simply no joy. This knight of La Mancha feels defeated before his journey has even begun. When he finally battles his windmills, one marvels at the physical artistry as actors are whipped about, but it’s that religious icon metaphor again – just a shadow of the real thing.

Don Quixote performs thru July 3 at Synetic Theater at Crystal City, located at 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA 22202. Closest Metro stop: Crystal City (Blue/Yellow lines). For more information call 703-824-8060.

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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