A Royal Mess

Every so often, you run into a theater enthusiast who issues the following proclamation as if he's just stumbled down Mount Olympus after staring into the visage of Dionysus: "The stage is a world of illusion where dreams come alive and we indulge our greatest fantasies."

I'm not sure why you hear that so often and expressed so eagerly-other than the indisputable fact that there's a part of everyone that yearns to write commercials for Las Vegas casinos and lick glitter from the shoes of David Copperfield. While you can't discount the germ of truth, the simple fact is that the more we talk about illusions, dreams and fantasies, the less liable we are to experience them.

And that's the main problem with two plays on local stages that deal with theater as a metaphor for fantasy and dreams: Irony of an Uncrowned Prince at the Ensemble Theatre in Orange and Man of La Mancha at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

Of the two, the tired warhorse of La Mancha does the far better job of showing rather than telling. It's a good production of a mediocre musical, the kind that works if you're a fan of musicals but merely reaffirms among the rest of us the belief that musicals, especially those that rely on taped music, should be exiled (along with kabuki theater and minstrel and puppet shows) to the memory hole.

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If you're not familiar with Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' rich, satirical novel Don Quixote, you're certainly familiar with the keynote song, "The Impossible Dream," a tune that has been transformed into impotent clich but is quite moving in the context of this story. That impossible dream is conjured by Don Quixote, the name taken by a Spanish nobleman who, after reading too many tales of chivalry, lapses into dementia and heads off into the countryside to combat injustice.

Had this play followed that story, it might have triumphed. But Wasserman, doubting either his abilities or his audience, framed the story around Cervantes being tossed into jail and awaiting a summons from dark-robed inquisitors. To help pass the time-and avoid being beaten by his fellow inmates-Cervantes acts out his unpublished story of Don Quixote.

It's not a bad idea for a book-less about Cervantes' satire and more about the power of imagination. But it's a wretched idea theatrically. One moment, Don Quixote is turning windmills into ogres and rustic inns into castles; the next, we're jerked back into the dungeon. The metal-on-metal sound you hear is the crunch gear shifting as the action cuts between fantasy and dark reality-confusing at first, downright irritating by play's end, it undercuts all the moments of fantasy and imagination by constantly pointing to them.

Although the play tends to drag during its intermissionless two hours, director Kent Johnson does a mostly fine job of staging, helped considerably by the one-named set designer, Bronson, and the no-named lighting designer, Technical Creations. The cast is also quite good, with Daryl Mendelson's very energetic Sancho Panza standing out among the leads and Russell Montooth's strong-lunged Padre anchoring the ensemble. The actors playing the key roles of Cervantes/Quixote (Frank Minano) and his idealized lover, Aldonza/Dulcinea (April Wilson), start off a bit rocky but get much better as the play progresses.

Of course, no musical that uses piped-in music is going to be a complete success. The only recourse is to hire a live band and strip it down if need be to a four-piece ensemble. That would mean that shows featuring complex, rich scores like this one (by Mitch Leigh) would no doubt be produced even less often than they are now-which would have the beneficial effect of killing a couple of old birds with the same stone.

The world of illusion in Roosevelt Blankenship Jr. and Kevin Darn's Irony of an Uncrowned Princeis more problematic. For starters, we're in Cleveland rather than La Mancha. And instead of the idealistic Don Quixote, we're asked to buy into the story of Tony, a frustrated actor (played by Blankenship). Suffering the slings and arrows of his dysfunctional past, Tony feels comfortable only onstage, where he transforms into royalty beneath the common lights, emigrating from the mundane into a world filled with fantasy and excitement.

And that's the main flaw with this Prince. We're told about-rather than shown-this world of fantasy and excitement over and over. What we do experience has too many elements of a soap opera-and not a very good soap opera.

Tony is egotistical, bitter and desperate, so afraid of being hurt that he's built a wall to keep at a distance those who want to be close to him. It's a fascinating character, and Blankenship's Tony possesses the fire and conviction to make it work. But other characters tell us about Tony so frequently in the first five minutes-that he's egotistical, bitter, etc.-that they almost transform Blankenship's acting into a postscript. And they keep telling us what's wrong with Tony, over and over, nearly every character. Instead of showing us the character's complexity and desperation, the playwrights put it in the mouths of their characters.

The overpowering presence of a therapeutic world-view kept me from buying into the fairly compelling emotional story onstage. Another critical flaw is Darn, under whose direction every character seems plagued by the virus of emotional ketchup-bursting. The story will be going along smoothly, with witty banter here and natural-sounding dialogue there, but then something's said, and the character-any character-bursts into a tirade and a flood of tears. Unless we're dealing with a play about primal therapy, this is bad theater.

Obstructed by the twin faulty dramaturgical towers of therapy and fevered emotion, the acting suffers. Only Blankenship and G.G. Crawley's excellent Rosa seem completely genuine. It's a shame because somewhere in here, there is a play. The ending, in which Tony delivers a moving monologue on a bare stage, works especially well, and there's enough clever wordplay and insight in the writing to make it work under different conditions.

Maybe Blankenship, who runs the Ensemble Theatre, and writing partner Darn, who wrote the play 11 years ago, are too close to the material to offer an objective staging. It's a very difficult thing to hand your baby over to someone else. But that may be what's needed to turn this Princeinto something befitting its title.

Man of La Mancha at Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 375-0696. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 28. $11-$15; $5 student prices Thurs.;Irony of an Uncrowned Prince at the Ensemble Theatre, 844 E. Lincoln Ave., Ste. E, Orange, (949) 263-4170. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through March 20. $15-$20.

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