.Theater: Comic effect

MSC’s ‘Don Quixote’ full of shticks

by Charles Brousse

Seldom, if ever, do critics sitting in the darkened audience writing unreadable notes to themselves, get a chance to become part of the evening’s entertainment. It happened to me last week in Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, where Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) is presenting the second of its 2015 summer festival productions, a new theatrical version of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous early 17th century novel, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, now simply re-titled Don Quixote.

Seated with my companion, third row center, I was scribbling comments when I heard the audience burst into laughter. Ron Campbell, the actor playing the Spanish Don had leaped from the stage, clambered over the intervening rows and was about to take a seat beside me. With a flick of the wrist, he launched my press envelope into the darkness, snatched the note paper from my hands, wrote on it, handed it back and returned to the stage. When I looked at what he had written, it read, “Ron Campbell is great!”

Now, it’s true that over the years I’ve chided MSC for continually sending actors into the audience, where they take a bite out of someone’s sandwich, drink another’s wine, or sit in an unwitting ticket-buyer’s lap. It’s a repetitive shtick, and the comic effect wears off after you’ve seen it a few times. That it happened to me doesn’t make it more defensible, but the crowd’s laughter was genuine and the episode provided me with the theme for this review—namely, that Ron Campbell is indeed GREAT (emphasis mine), and those who value fine acting should hustle out to Forest Meadows during the play’s final weeks to see for themselves.

Campbell’s forte is clowning, but it’s not the American clown. No fat suit, chalky skin, bulbous red nose and spontaneous pratfalls. His is the more subtle European style that establishes a character through posture, movement, facial expressions and mime. Don Quixote, the mentally confused would-be knight errant who wanders the arid wastes of Central Spain’s La Mancha district on a broomstick horse with a watering can for a head, is looking for heroic deeds that will win the favor of his imaginary “Lady.” Dulcinea (actually the daughter of a village pig farmer), is the perfect vehicle for this approach.

Of course, Campbell is not the whole show. Director Lesley Schisgall Currier moves the action along smoothly, although—with a running time of two hours plus—the adaptation by Canadian writers Peter Anderson and Colin Heath (this is its U.S. premiere) might have benefited from some trimming, especially in the more wordy second act. John R. Lewis is a solid Sancho Panza, the Don’s faithful (though skeptical) “squire.” Cassidy Brown and Rick Eldridge are fun to watch as a kind of village chorus, and the remainder of the ensemble holds its own. David Poznanter’s half-masks create a commedia atmosphere that suits the production style, and Billie Cox’s flamenco-flavored music adds an authentic touch.

In sum, even in the midst of our drought, MSC’s Don Quixote is worth a visit to the even drier plains of La Mancha—but watch out if you sit third row center with note paper in your hands. You might have a visitor!

NOW PLAYING: Don Quixote runs through August 30 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, San Rafael. For more information, call 415/499-4488, or visit marin shakespeare.org.

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