On March 19 we marked the fourth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, the supposedly quickly-in-and-quickly-out military action. While the United States argues about how best to honor and support the troops, and whatever your stand on the actual war itself, perhaps we should contemplate the role of the warrior. Two excellent Los Angeles area productions give contrasting, seemingly contradictory views of the men in arms.
In Glendale at A Noise Within, Man of La Mancha gives us an elderly man. Alonso Quijana imagines himself the knight Don Quixote. He battles windmills and asks for chaste love from a slatternly kitchen maid, Aldonza, whom he calls Dulcinea.
Based on Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s novel, this musical (book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion) begins with Cervantes (Geoff Elliott) in jail, waiting to appear before the Grand Spanish Inquisition. He convinces all the inmates to help him enact his novel in order to save his only manuscript from the fire they want to make to keep themselves warm.
Cervantes plays Don Quixote. His servant plays Sancho Panza (Alan Blumenfeld). The leader of the prisoners (Steve Weingartner) becomes an innkeeper, and a fellow prisoner becomes Aldonza (Nadia Ahern). In the end, he convinces the inmates of the worthiness of his work and he leaves to face the Inquisition. This musical is best known for its song, “The Impossible Dream,” and under the direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, it inspires us to be better people, but not necessarily knights in fine armor.
At the Theatre@Boston Court, Gilgamesh is about a historic Sumerian king and a king of the same name who figures in an epic tale. In this new version by Stephen Mitchell and adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs (who along with Jessica Kubzansky, directs), this man is more than a match for great beasts and mortal men. He is brave, he is strong, and he is a king. While his people honor his virility, they decry his tyranny. He has no respect for other men and he considers it his privilege to rape each virgin bride before she consummates her marriage with her groom.
His people pray to the gods for help and this comes in the form of a man named Enkidu, who lives amongst the wild animals. A clever Gilgamesh sends a priestess to seduce him. Once he discovers the pleasure of women, the animals reject him and Enkidu follows the priestess back to the city. He confronts Gilgamesh as the king prepares to rape a virgin bride. Instead of becoming enemies, they become friends.
The simple dreamscape setting, by set designer Melissa Ficociello, is lushly lit by Jeremy Pivnick. This production contains male and female nudity and tastefully suggested sexual situations, but it is not meant for young children.
According to the program notes, a real man named Gilgamesh ruled as king of Uruk, Mesopotamia in 2750 BCE. In 1700 BCE, a poet wrote an epic tale about a Gilgamesh, taking 11 stone tables for the whole story. As the hero of the play based on an epic poem, Gilgamesh (the muscular and commanding Deobia Oparei) is a demigod who knows no equal until a wild man, Enkidu (Will Watkins), confronts him. It is Gilgamesh’s own folly that brings this friendship to an end.
When Gilgamesh resolves to destroy evil in a “pre-emptive strike” against a monster that exists but does not threaten his city at all, Enkidu dies because this act angers the gods. Gilgamesh begins a great journey to assuage his guilt and even, perhaps, bring his friend back from the dead. He fails, but there is something to be learned through failure.
As with all the heroes in the ancient Greek and Roman myths, in this world premiere adaptation at the Theatre@Boston Court, Gilgamesh is a flawed hero who often makes costly mistakes. When he returns to his city he is still strong, but he is wiser and more humble. In this we see what it is to be a great warrior, to be brave, to have honor, and to have compassion for weaker beings.
In Man of La Mancha our knight is not a warrior. He kills no one and he ravages no women. He is weak as Gilgamesh is strong, derided as crazy while Gilgamesh is feared and honored.
Cervantes’ hero is not based on a real man. He is not a man of heroic proportions, virile or strong. He is more flawed than godly, yet Quixote, even when vanquished by the mirrors, shows courage, nobility of spirit, honor, and admiration without lust. All are admirable qualities, but perhaps Cervantes saw that these virtues weren’t the exclusive domain of knights and warriors. Historically, we know that warriors — now and then — were not always chivalrous.
In the musical, the character Cervantes notes that he has known war and it is not noble, so it seems as no mistake that the main character of his novel is not a great and powerful man, but simply one who attempts to see people at their best and raise the peasants to have noble spirits and ambitions of virtuous and honorable living.
In the beginning, Elliot is a little mannered in his singing and this seems annoying until the character of Cervantes slowly merges into the character of Quixote. As usual, A Noise Within gives a well-executed and thoughtful production with a surprising depth of feeling.
The Boston Court’s production of Gilgamesh is an adult fairy tale of lust and adventure and dearly-bought wisdom, while A Noise Within’s revival of Man of La Mancha is a fairy tale of what men and women could be if they dared to be brave, face ridicule, and chanced failure. It is a tale where even a doddering old man can inspire nobility of spirit in those with open hearts.
If you don’t believe you’re too old for fairy tales, both productions have lessons to teach and are done with great style.