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The short list of fictional characters who have slipped free from their paper asylums and emerged into the real word as full-fledged cultural archetypes includes the names Tom Sawyer, Doctor Faust and Don Juan.
Don Quixote may trump them all. From his crazy obsession with toppling windmills to the myriad of imitations and models he has launched, the titular character in Miguel de Cervantes’ early-17th-Century Spanish-language novel is absolutely ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness. Hell, he even got his own word.
There have been plenty of dramatic treatments of the man and his legend over the years, most notably the 1964 musical adaptation, Man of La Mancha, which added two notable achievements to human civilization: the song “The Impossible Dream”and about 30 years to the career of Robert Goulet.
The latest is East Coast-based playwright Jason Lindner’s 80-minute, loopily deconstructed The Ballad of Don Q, or The High Adventures of ‘Sixgun’ Q. A free-wheeling send-up of both the original novel as well as radio and film serials of mid-20th-Century America, Lindner’s tale covers all the appropriate thematic bases: lampooning the notion of heroic, chivalric tales of Cervantes’ time and exploring the thin line between appearance and reality—as well as the even-thinner one between madness and sanity.
Lindner obviously knows the source material, and he’s also a playwright of unquestionable talent. His relationship with the Fullerton-based Hunger Artists Theatre Co. sparked two of the most ingenious and mind-fucking plays of the past five years on local stages: The Gog/Magog Project and The Pledge Drive: Ruminations on the Hunger Artist.
That résumé, coupled with the rich ore of the source material, would seem to make a retelling of the Don Quixote epic a slam-dunk.
Unfortunately, this attempt is a clumsily executed air ball from half-court. It not only fails to hit the rim or catch the net, but it also somehow deflates during its arc.
Lindner is not a playwright who feels obligated to adhere to standard dramatic conventions. He takes big risks with his material and isn’t afraid to introduce bold, outrageous situations and ideas. But all too often, the content in this Don Q doesn’t match the form. The wit isn’t sharp enough, the dramatic moments not compelling enough, and the entire thing feels slapdash.
Our Don Q (Frank Valdez Jr., whose stage presence is rather unpresent) is an aging Long Island man who believes himself to be Sixgun Q, a white-hatted lawman who once strode the Wild West in a popular radio and film serial. Through radio broadcasts and narration supplied by a tabacky-spitting drifter (the always impeccable Mark Coyan) and an Old Woman In Time (a far-from-fleshed-out Katherine McKalip), we see our Don Q slowly descend into madness. Inflamed with the desire to clean out the trash littering the American Southwest, he grabs his rusted revolver, his old boots equipped with forks as spurs and a ridiculous junk-horse and heads for the frontier to find the trail of the notorious Dark Horse Gang.
Along the way, he meets an equally desperate man named Ponch (an equally unformed David Vu), who agrees to join him on his ridiculous journey, as well as an odd assortment of fairly common people and events that, in his hallucinations, turn into everything from irate Native American braves to ghost riders swirling in the sky.
Worried about her uncle’s curious later-life path, Don Q’s niece turns to her fiance, a psychiatry student, to try to restore his wits.
As written, complete with a romping theme score and old-timey breakfast-cereal ads, the play is supposed to feel consciously silly. Sound effects occur just offstage, just like on the radio, and the script is self-referential enough for an audience to forgive production values that would seem amateurish in other plays.
The trick is to somehow navigate between pretending to be half-assed and actually being half-assed, and director Jill Johnson’s production rarely achieves that balance. Actors seem to spin in their own private worlds, and while some performances are quite funny (particularly that of Katie Chidester), much of the ensemble seems directed to walk onstage and find the biggest, most-superficial character imaginable. That produces the occasional chuckle but prevents the play from achieving the kind of centrifugal force necessary to hold itself together.
Now, Lindner isn’t a half-assed playwright. His previous efforts in OC have produced highly intelligent pieces that crawl into an audience’s head. You may not know what exactly Lindner is trying to say, but it’s impossible to walk away thinking that he’s not saying anything.
You don’t get that sense here. Even though Don Q ends on a very serious note, it rings false after the unformed, scattered orchestration of the preceding events.
Sometimes a production derails a script; sometimes a script is just too meager to support a production. In this case, it’s a little bit of both. Lindner shouldn’t junk this play, but he really needs to figure out just which windmill he’s interested in toppling—and then knock the fucker down.
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