The prisoners are already onstage as we find our seats. They’re rowdy, banging their hands on the mock-iron bars of their giant communal cell. It’s the Spanish Inquisition, or rather, the Inquisition as interpreted by a 50-year-old Broadway musical: a place where disparate cellmates are totally comfortable breaking into song and dance at some coaxing from an outsider. Soon enough, the missing ingredient arrives: A giant staircase descends from the rafters and guards escort the brittle and desperate impossible dreamer Miguel de Cervantes into the dungeon.
Thus begins Man of La Mancha, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new revival of Dale Wasserman’s 1965 stage classic. And if such an auspicious opening stroke has steeled you for two hours of visual dazzle, you don’t know La Mancha. The rest of the minimalist, metatextual show takes place in the collective imagination of the audience and cast, as Cervantes (Anthony Warlow) desperately conjures and stars in a production of his famous novel Don Quixote to save his life.
The author’s trunk of theatrical supplies provides the costumes, his manservant (Nehal Joshi, yelping all his lines with odd cadences) steps into sidekick Sancho Panza, and the prisoners fill out the margins. The effect is claustrophobic yet safe—almost too safe. The character’s anachronistic chivalry is meant to exist out of step with his harsh surroundings, but even at its harshest, the show’s world seems fitted for him.
That’s not to say director Alan Paul is coasting. He’s smart to keep La Mancha stripped-down—for example, using shadowplay to render the famous windmills that Cervantes/Quixote mistakes for giants. A 2002 Broadway revival projected fantasy images onto the stage, giving audiences a pass on the whole “enter my imagination” thing. But a show about a dreamer, based on the world’s most famous novel about a dreamer, shouldn’t be afraid to let us dream.
And Warlow dreams well. As he applies his own makeup and prosthetics in his transformation from Cervantes to Quixote, he assumes the quibbling chin and fragile stature of an old man whose sanity has departed. Yes, his rendition of “The Impossible Dream” is a big-chested highlight. But it’s his introductory number, the buoyant “I, Don Quixote”—performed while galloping atop “horses” made out of barrels and mops—where he really nails the gallant-goof tone of the character and show. Whether coincidental or not, in makeup Warlow bears a striking physical resemblance to WSC’s other big enchanter this season, Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero in last holiday’s The Tempest. The two shows both hit the sweet spot of giddy production values coupled with a transparent theatricality that lets the audience in on the fun.
The standout, though, is Amber Iman as the prostitute Aldonza, whom Quixote mistakes for noble lady. The 27-year-old Iman gives a hardened performance, nailing a difficult arc—from disillusioned to self-confident, then broken after a harrowing assault. She manages a churning humanity throughout.
Aldonza’s trauma, like the framing of the show itself, may be a giant game of make-believe. But the fun of STC’s production is its willingness to let us enjoy collective insanity for a while.
A slipperier sort of storyteller is at the heart of G-d’s Honest Truth. Theater J’s new original work is based on the story of disgraced Wheaton rabbi Menachem Youlus, who throughout the 2000s sold Torahs to congregations by falsely claiming he had rescued them from Holocaust sites. For a while he enjoyed the title of “the Jewish Indiana Jones,” until a 2010 Washington Post investigation exposed him and he went to prison.
For her fictionalization of Youlus’s story, playwright Renee Calarco (The Religion Thing) smartly trains her attention not on the charlatan at the story’s center, but on the believers who took him at his word. Larry and Roberta, a wealthy middle-aged District couple (the wonderful, verve-filled Naomi Jacobson and the somewhat prickly John Lescault), encounter Dov (Sasha Olinick), a smooth-talking rabbi who dons a fedora over his yarmulke and offers blood-stained scrolls piping fresh from Auschwitz. His recounting of one such “find,” under director Jenny McConnell Frederick, is a perfect moment of theater, somehow moving even as it taunts you with its implausibility and, by extension, its sliminess.
The barbs would feel stronger if the show didn’t otherwise feel so vaudevillian. A chorus of four additional actors jump in and out for quick shots, and the show traffics in easy jokes about Jews and the elderly. Wood panels with personal tchochkes—from Sabbath candles to an NPR tote bag—surround the stage like the border of a Maurice Sendak picture book, as the cast addresses the audience directly with shtick (“You sure you aren’t hungry?”). You feel like you’re being courted for synagogue membership. Unfortunately, there is no good way to be courted for synagogue membership.
But get past all this and the play cuts deep in its portrayal of rich, moderately observant American Jews who fetishize their own history. Local synagogues compete to each have their own “Holocaust Torah” and offer robotic solemn-head-bows when referring to a congregant as “a survivor.” When Dov relates a preposterous account of how he came to possess a second diary by none other than Anne Frank, they buy it hook, line, and macher.
This examination of a scheming local rabbi arrives at a difficult but necessary moment for the District’s Jewish community, still nursing open wounds from the recent discovery of Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundal’s alleged mikvah voyeurism. G-d’s Honest Truth is strongest and most provocative when suggesting that religion should not take blind faith in its governing institutions. It cuts Dov too much slack at the end, skipping over the fact that his real-life equivalent exploited the memory of the Holocaust for personal profit, instead offering some schmutz about everyone needing a story to believe in. But Calarco is correct that the moral thrust of this story lies with the flock, not the shepherd. Recall the wisdom of Der Rebbe Homer Simpson: “It takes two to lie. One to lie, and one to listen.”
Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. $20–$110. 202.547.1122. shakespearetheatre.org
Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. $10–$65. (202) 518-9400. theaterj.org