Man of La Mancha: Raising Hard Questions

Covenant’s theater and music departments have come together to create a memorable rendition of the classic tale of Don Quixote with their performance of Man of La Mancha. This production is Covenant's long awaited return to musical theater after a three-and-a-half-year hiatus.

Man of La Mancha is a story within a story, set in a Spanish prison during the Inquisition in the 1500s. It begins when would-be tax collector and poet Miguel Cervantes, played by William Darby (‘18), is thrown into jail to await trial. In order to appease and entertain his jail mates, Cervantes weaves a tale of adventure and enlists his companions to help act it out. Cervantes takes on the role of Don Quixote, a Spanish nobleman who has gone mad and imagines himself to be a noble knight, a profession which has been extinct for 300 years.

Quixote and his care-free servant Sancho, portrayed by Jack Edling (‘21), leave their concerned families and venture into the world, meeting a cast of characters who are not quite sure how to respond to a madman living in a fantasy. Most notable of these characters is Sammie Brown’s (‘18) character, the prostitute Aldonza, who is chosen by Quixote on sight as his lady to be loved chastely from afar.

Covenant’s theater department created an astounding set for the show. With several different platform levels and various entries and exits, the set is a feat of engineering creativity which perfectly portrays the prison the story is set in, but also seamlessly transitions into an inn and a castle. The show’s costuming was simple, but the cast skillfully handled the added complexity of repeated costume alterations made on stage as they transitioned from prisoners to inn guests to gypsies. Particularly delightful were the basket-like horse heads worn by Julie Pretorius (‘18) and Milagro Guerra (‘20) in several scenes. The musical score was performed live during the show by a group of alumni, staff, and community members, directed by Dr. Kim. The live percussion and guitar brought the actor’s singing to life, immersing the audience into the world of Don Quixote.

Brown and Darby are unquestionably the stars of the show. The majority of the songs in the musical feature Don Quixote, and Darby’s voice conveyed the emotions of his character with skill. Brown is especially prominent in the second half of the show, and she portrays Aldonza excellently by adopting harsh mannerisms but singing absolutely beautifully.

The interactions of these two characters are the heart of the plot, and Don Quixote and Aldonza are the only characters of real substance in Man of La Mancha. Most characters only make brief cameos, or, as in the case of Edling as Sancho, serve as comedic relief. They occasionally drive the plot forward, but they themselves do not experience character development. To be sure, the show is full of unexpected moments of hilarity thanks to Edling’s Sancho, Eddie Sunder (‘19) as the Governor and Innkeeper, and Marie Bowen (‘20) as Quixote's niece. However, the story’s comedy is weighed down in the second half of the play when Aldonza is raped, and the sprinkling of comedy in with this heavy subject seems to undermine the sorrows that Don Quixote and Aldonza face.

In director Claire Slavovsky’s notes on the production, she alludes to the contrast between light and dark in the musical, and observes that the play may not give answers about how to find hope in the midst of pain and despair, but that it is useful for reminding us of these questions which must be asked. Personally, the rape of Aldonza left me angry and distracted for the last quarter of the play. Though Don Quixote brings some hope to Aldonza by giving her a new name, he also played a part in making her vulnerable to the thugs in the play, and remains ignorant of his mistakes.

This unresolved tragedy in conjunction with comedic one-liners was jarring to me, detracting from the musical as both a comedy and a thought-provoking drama. Dealing with subjects as raw and painful as rape is never easy, and perhaps writer Dale Wasserman intended his show’s uncomfortable juxtaposition to convey just that. All the same, Man of La Mancha leaves the audience feeling somewhat complicit in a horrific act, with no outlets for further discussion about the trauma of rape and the fact that even people who have hope in Christ’s redemption of all things ought to respond to ‘violence against women’ not with naivety but with anger.

In spite of the uncomfortable questions raised by the plotline, Man of La Mancha will make you laugh, and it will certainly make you appreciate the musical and theatrical talent at Covenant. The revival of musicals at Covenant is undoubtedly something worth celebrating, and the students and staff involved have produced an excellent performance. On the other hand, the combination of light-hearted comedy and violence against women in the show they chose to perform is disturbing, and Man of La Mancha raises more questions than it answers. It remains to be seen whether the light-hearted jokes or the tension between hope and pain will leave a deeper impression on its audiences.

   From left to right, Jack Edling as Sancho Panza, William Darby as Don Quixote, and Sammie Brown as Aldonza. (Photo courtesy of the Covenant College Theatre Department.)

From left to right, Jack Edling as Sancho Panza, William Darby as Don Quixote, and Sammie Brown as Aldonza. (Photo courtesy of the Covenant College Theatre Department.)