With Hispanic Heritage Month underway, I’ve been looking forward to seeing Quixote Nuevo, Octavio Solis’ adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote. Directed by Lisa Portes, the contemporary reimagining of the tale features an all-Latinx cast and a bold mix of Tejano music, puppetry, and bilingual wordplay.
Taking up the mantle of the knight is Jose Quijano (Herbert Siguenza), a retired professor with dementia whose family wants to send him to an assisted living center. Focusing on the impact of discovering love and joy in difficult circumstances, Quixote Nuevo is a production that also invites us to a thoughtful and significant discussion about immigration in Texas border towns.
You can see the show now through October 3 at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. Round House is also offering a virtual version to watch from home, beginning on September 23.
On a conference call, I had an opportunity to ask Lisa Portes about casting the roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; her favorite scene; and why puppetry is a fantastic element of the show. Portes serves on the Executive Board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and on the Board of Theatre Communications Group, and is a member of the Directors Circle of the Drama League.
What lesson do you always carry with you in your career as a director?
My mentor Des McAnuff taught me many moons ago, when I was graduate student and an assistant of his, [that] the best idea in the room doesn’t always come from the director. It’s the director’s job to recognize the best idea. It may come from the draper in the costume shop, the assistant stage manager, [or] an intern. Our job as director is to recognize that great idea.
When was your first encounter with the story of Don Quixote?
Growing up Latina, there was a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza statue, painting, or wooden statuette in just about every Latinx family’s house that I walked into. Of course, they’re part of lore in the way King Arthur or Hamlet are part of the lore of Northern European cultures. [There are] songs about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The way I came in contact with them was not through reading a book. It was my father, who is also a professor like Quixote in the play, telling me the stories of Don Quixote.
Which aspects of Octavio Solis’s style are most interesting when you pick up one of his scripts?
I’ve been a huge fan of Octavio for a long time. This is the first time I’ve directed his work, but I’ve read a ton of his plays. I’ve been dying for the opportunity to work with him. I was really excited when he recommended me for the Round House production.
There’s a muscularity, a kind of specific Tejano voice, and humor. Incredibly, he’s fearless also when it comes to the pathos of the story. That combination of muscularity, humor, and a deep pathos through a Tejano lens is really what defines Octavio’s work to me.
What’s beautiful about the Tejano music?
The play is very much about a character at the end of his life, whom Death is pursuing to have him face his life before he transcends to the next level. As in the Mexican tradition, there’s a lot of Death—not as in “Oh, my God it’s death,” but Death as a figure. There are these calacas, the skeletons that are kind of naughty like in Day of the Dead.
The music is equally mischievous, haunting, naughty, and gritty. It’s like Tejano, mixed with Blues, and mixed with Tom Waits if you can imagine it. The music is thrilling. I got the text and the music at the same time. The music inspired my approach to the piece and [its] entire design.
The relationship of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is well known and beloved. What do you appreciate in what Herbert Siguenza and Ernie Gonzalez, Jr. brought to the roles?
When I auditioned actors for the role of Sancho, I already knew I wanted Herbert Siguenza to play Quixote from the moment I was offered the show. I wanted the actors auditioning for Sancho Panza to read with Herbert, because I wanted to make sure there was chemistry there.
Ernie was who we cast for the role, because they were able to just immediately click and play with one another as a good comic duo needs to be able to. They could riff together and make each other laugh. They are beautiful partners on stage, generous with one another, and the comic chops are through the roof. I remember Herbert saying afterwards, “Ernie is like a Chicano James Corden.”
They’re a beautiful pair and you need that in a comic duo. There has to be that kind of chemistry.
What’s one of your favorite scenes in the show?
I have so many. Speaking of Sancho Panza and Quixote, there is a scene where everybody else is trying to convince Quijano, who thinks of himself as Quixote, to go and rescue his Dulcinea. They put on a fake play to convince him that one of the other characters is Dulcinea to get him to actually go into senior care. Sancho, or Manny, rebels completely and says, “You can’t fool him. You can’t fool Don Quixote,” and basically insults them for this.
The way Sancho fights for Quixote and his imagination and his vision—here’s the thing: you can read the play through the lens that he’s an older man who should probably get help and be in a living center. Many people are and that’s all right. Or you can go with Sancho and wonder, sometimes people are living on a different plane that may be a better and more interesting one. Sancho really fights for his imagination and dreams, which to me is beautiful.
Have you worked with puppets before? What’s exciting and challenging about that?
No, I have never worked with puppets before, but I’ve always wanted to! Helen Huang, our costume designer, suggested the Dulcinea character should be articulated through puppetry. At first I thought, I don’t know who will relate to her. Well, if a young Quijano character—this is a pair of lovers in Quijano’s past—is also a puppet then it makes sense because he’s remembering this through an idealized lens. I was like, “Helen, you’re right.”
Helen designed these beautiful puppets. We have a number of different kinds of puppets in the show. The young Quijano and the young Dulcinea puppets are beautiful. It brings a magic, a romance, and a delight to both that relationship and how Quixote is remembering.
My initial question of [whether] the audience will relate to Dulcinea is answered by the fact that when there are puppets on stage, the audience has to invest. We invest our imaginations to animate the puppet. It’s a collaboration between the puppeteer and the audience in the animation of the puppet and giving what would be an inanimate object a deep life. It’s a stunning addition to the play and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Were there any other elements in directing this production that are new to you?
I’ve been in the field for a while. I will say that coming back from COVID, I haven’t directed live performance for 18 months to a show this big. I kept joking with Ryan Rilette, who is the artistic director, “You couldn’t have hired me for a four-person show that takes place in a living room, 90 minutes long, and where everybody plays one character? No, no.”
We’re doing a play with nine actors playing something like 24 characters with music, puppets, and a set with tricks and trap doors. It’s a big epic tale. That was a real challenge having not been in live theatre [for so long], but it’s so exciting with this incredibly talented group of artists and designers who are brilliant. Of course, [we have] the amazing staff and administrative leadership of Round House Theatre behind us the entire way.
What are your thoughts about opening the show during Hispanic Heritage Month?
Octavio wrote a straight-ahead adaptation of Don Quixote for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival many years ago. He never felt satisfied with it in the end. And he, [like] anybody who reads the entirety of Quixote, you become obsessed. He wanted to write a Quixote for the Americas, for this side of the Atlantic.
He grew up in El Paso and he set it in a border town in Texas. He made it, as we’ve discussed, a Tejano border and a Chicano version of the Quixote. Right now in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re really celebrating people who have immigrated from Latin America to the United States. It’s a perfect celebration of the beauty, the pathos, and the trauma of the relationship between folks identifying as Latinx and Hispanic to this country, the border, and to all that is culturally beautiful and complicated.