One of the most intriguing literary adventurers in European history is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), Spanish-born soldier, tax collector, prisoner, slave and poet, who has reached mythical status as the author of “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” This legendary man of letters could find no greater tribute than the portrayal of Emmy Award-winner Henry Darrow (“Santa Barbara,” “Resurrection Blvd.”). Darrow doesn’t just perform the sometimes meandering text of playwright Harry Cason. Under Debra De Liso’s inspired guidance, Darrow burrows into the psyche of this complex historical figure who never found true success in his own time. Darrow also displays a wonderfully facile gift for characterization as he embodies the vocal and physical attributes of the many colorful characters who inhabit Cervantes’ world, including the fictional Don Quixote, his beloved horse and his ever-faithful servant, Sancho Panza.
Cason’s two-acter never settles in any area for too long, almost chaotically changing focus from Cervantes’ present-day musings to his reveries of the past. DeLiso’s economical but insightful staging underscores every aspect of these theme changes, keeping Darrow’s Cervantes on track. Her efforts are admirably supported by the synergistic production designs of Dan Smith (sets), Robert Fromer (lights) and Vince R. Gutierrez (sound).
Set in 1614, the text covers one day in the life of an aged, impoverished Cervantes who is desperately anticipating the arrival of an emissary to interview him to determine if he’s worthy of becoming the resident poet and playwright of the royal court. As he roams about his studio, the often forgetful writer plays devil’s advocate with himself, chiding and cajoling his spirit and his creativity to meet the challenge being offered to lift himself and his family out of poverty.
Trying to formulate the most impressive but diplomatic opening statement, he says, “For a man without prospects there are only three open roads: the sea, the church or the king’s service.” It is his distaste at feeling he has to appear non-controversial that sets his spirit reeling through the flamboyant chapters of his past, hoping to better understand himself so he can marshal his internal forces to win over the emissary.
Darrow is captivating throughout. The highlight of the first act is Cervantes’ passionate re-creation of his military exploits at the monumental Battle of Lopanto (1571), a naval engagement that pitted the combined Christian forces of Europe against the Muslim ships of the Ottoman Turks. There appears to be no limit to his emotional range as he segues from the passionate sounds of battle to his recollections of being imprisoned and enslaved by Algerian pirates to his deeply felt sadness at the death of his brother, killed at the Battle of Flanders.
Above all, Darrow’s Cervantes is a man of humor who takes great delight in skewering the villains of his past and present. His vocal caricatures are devastating, especially the lampooning of his hated rival, successful playwright Lope de Vega. Another comic highlight is his re-creation of his embezzlement trial when he served as tax collector for the king. He feels he proved his case magnificently, but he still served 90 days. He readily admits his incarceration proved fortuitous because it offered him the leisure to begin writing the work that would make him immortal.
The second act is devoted mostly to the characters from “Quixote,” with Darrow making great use of vocal inflection and pantomime to relate the tale of the addled old man who believes, “As a gallant knight I shall travel the land.” Darrow infuses his character with a growing confidence and belief in his own worth. By play’s end, an invigorated Cervantes proclaims, “For a man without prospects there are only three open roads: the sea, the church or the world of ideas.”