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Wednesday, September 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Theater Review

"Don Quixote": Spirited cast, super design

Special to The Seattle Times

Along with Melville's "Moby Dick," "Don Quixote" may be the greatest novel most of us have never read. (Or finished anyway). So Book-It's exuberant production of this world classic (the first show of its 2005-06 season) gives us the chance to marvel at Miguel de Cervantes' amazing achievement.

Cervantes' plot is the mother of all buddy comedies: An aging bookworm, imbibed with a love of medieval Spanish chivalry, goes mad and comes to believe he is a knight errant ready to venture forth into the world to perform noble deeds. Accompanying him on his journey through the good, bad and ugly of humankind is his chosen squire, Sancho Panza, a peasant of uncommon loyalty and good sense.

Director David Quicksall's talented, high-spirited cast tears into Cervantes' text (co-adapted by Quicksall and Anne Ludlum) like it's a juicy leg of lamb, relishing the language in both English and Spanish.

Cervantes himself (excellently played by solid stage veteran Wesley Rice) is our guide to the evening's proceedings. Acting as narrator and part-time stage assistant, Rice introduces scenes and wryly comments on the actions of his characters, which are not always under his control.

As the most influential "Odd Couple" in the history of the novel, actors Gene Freedman as Quixote and Walter James Baker as Panza give rich, generous performances. Tall as an old, spindly tree and moving with a slow, arthritic grace, Freedman's Quixote is a man defined by heroic melancholy: "I was born to live by dying ... " he tells his short, pleasure-loving companion "... and you to die by eating."

Despite some obvious set-ups for the easy laugh, Quicksall's direction is fluid and sure. In the first act (Part 1) the action is fast, bawdy and broad, and the emphasis is on the comic, mostly painful consequences of the Don's delusions (he sees windmills as giants and sheep as armies) colliding with rough and tumble 16th-century Spanish life.

In Part 2 (written by Cervantes some 10 years after the publication of Part 1), Quicksall slows the pacing, giving the satire a more poignant punch. We see a crass, callous society which now celebrates the famous characters of a best-selling book while secretly plotting their real-life humiliation.

Now playing

"Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes, a Book-It Repertory Theatre production. Conceived and adapted by Anne Ludlum and David Quicksall. Seattle Center House Theatre, Seattle. Runs Wednesdays-Sundays through Oct 16. $15-$30. (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

To help illustrate Cervantes' vision, Book-It has engaged a Northwest treasure, artist Fay Jones, as set designer for this show.

Her whimsical drawings, plus a witty sound design by Nathan Wade and an artfully crafted mule and horse of uncommon dexterity (compliments of artist Robert C. Jones) add immeasurably to the pleasure of this entertaining production.

"Don Quixote" celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. We may know the plays of Shakespeare better, but Cervantes' revolutionary tale of a noble fool and a compassionate servant who is a totally free, thinking man will continue to find audiences for many generations to come.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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