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If Cervantes’ Don Quixote was born when an ordinary man gave in to the seductions of the chivalric tale, Stanislavsky Theater Studio’s Don Quixote looks to have had its genesis when a handful of extraordinary artists surrendered to the blandishments of cinema.
Not that they’ve merely translated a movie for the stage. The Stanislavsky troupe specializes in a particular brand of theatrical hypertext, an intense and often hallucinatory showmanship that at once acknowledges the power of language and insists that passionate writing demands equally passionate staging.
So when Roland Reed and Andrei Malaev-Babel chose Grigory Kozintsev’s landmark film of Don Quixote as the basis for their stage treatment, it was in no small part because Evgeny Shvarts’ screenplay had already shifted the story’s focus from Quixote the man to Quixote the myth. The noted Russian playwright sketched for the screen the sort of sweeping, impressionistic narrative that makes a perfect starting point for the Stanislavsky troupe’s potent mix of movement, imagery, and noise; he wasand they areas thoroughly intoxicated by the grander notion of the hero as Cervantes’ protagonist is by the heroic stories that inspire him.
Certainly the fleet-footed tale that Malaev-Babel and co-director Paata Tsikurishvili tell has the vaguely fantastical feel of legend. Brisk dialogue gives way without warning to blithe allegory or black episodes from nightmare; an imposingly trim Tsikurishvili (playing Quixote to Malaev-Babel’s Sancho Panza) battles visible enemies one moment, virtual foes the next. Quixote’s sorcerer nemesis, Freston (Jonathan Leveck), is evil’s banality incarnate, a metaphor made flesh in scene after sceneLeveck/Freston is the face of the villain in each of Quixote’s encounters, from cruel farmer to condescending noble, and it’s his features behind the visor of the scholar-knight whose all-too-clever “cure” finally breaks the old man’s spirit.
And what a spirit: Tsikurishvili’s precisely calibrated performance as the Knight of the Mournful Countenanceone of Quixote’s handful of lyrical nicknamesdepends as much on expression as on line readings, and this actor is a master of the former. Watch his eyes grow darker, duller as Quixote’s dreams die; watch how amusingly they bounce as Leveck’s cocky student tests his reflexes, ER-style, with a rapidly moving finger. Watch the smooth circular precision with which Tsikurishvili and Malaev-Babel sway, describing narrow parallel orbits amid a crowd of hectoring convicts. Watch, especially, the despair in Tsikurishvili’s features as he dodges the swinging, staring corpses in the gallows nightmare that strikes him near the story’s end.
But then, as fans of the Stanislavsky ensemble will have come to expect, movement (Paata’s wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, is the company’s consistently hypnotic choreographer) and music constantly marry to reinforce both the production’s mood and the drama of individual moments: A shrill skirl of violins underscores the harshness of a shepherd-boy’s lashing, Tsikurishvili tilts at his windmill to the strains of Vivaldi (and minor Piazzolla variations thereon), and a languid Spanish guitar accompanies a servant girl’s dreamy litany of the chivalries her master has performed in honor of the ideal damsel he believes her to be. And though the regular theatergoer will know that no Stanislavsky production is complete without a bit of business involving a length of fabric, the sheer startling power of what Malaev-Babel and the Tsikurishvilis conjure for the production’s climax will rock even the jaded back in their seatsand its lingering impact, backed by the intensely romantic swell of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, will pull them to their feet after the lights go down for the last time.
All this emphasis on sound and style doesn’t mean that the text gets short shrift, though certainly there are a few weak language links among the cast. Tsikurishvili himself is deft with Quixote’s dialogue, even if several of the minor players still seem to be feeling their way, whether with the play’s text or with basic stagecraft or with English itself. And if Malaev-Babel still fights an occasional tendency toward odd emphasis or singsong delivery, his Sancho is, on the whole, an immensely charming figure, easygoing and levelheaded and happy to be along for the ride. This is, in fact, the most natural of the performances I’ve seen Malaev-Babel give, and he certainly sells the story of Sancho’s abortive governorshipa sort of stand-up justice routinewith energy and spark.
Of the supporting cast, the ablest performances come from Leveck, from Catherine Gasta (a poised Aldonza/Dulcinea), and from Andreia Gliga, who endears herself at the very outset, greeting the news of her master’s madness with an adorable little squeak of despair. And though he overdoes a surgeon-barber’s injured dignity and a mule-driver’s hotheaded jealousy, Armand Sindoni makes an agreeably indolent lion, blinking lazily at the madman who’s opened his cage at a manipulative woman’s behest. (The idle flick of his tail is one of the production’s many deftly done comic bits.)
The show is Paata Tsikurishvili’s, though. At least, you’d have to say so if Don Quixote didn’t owe so much of its considerable power to the cumulative effect of his performance, his wife’s choreography, and the directorial vision he developed with Malaev-Babel. Individually, their contributions are remarkable; taken together, they’re purest theatrical magic. CP