Sunday, April 27, 2014

Man of La Mancha Inspires

By Genevieve Heinrich
Photos by David Busch

Kehry Anson Lane as Miguel de Cervantes
Iowa City - "I charge you," prates Josh Sazon's Governor, addressing Kehry Anson Lane's Miguel de Cervantes, only barely after they've met in the common room of a Spanish prison, "with being an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man!" Hardly the indictment he implies, at least not to those of us who happen to self-identify quite similarly. However, to the hardened prison inmates who surround them, those crimes are worse than any of their own, and Cervantes embarks on mission of desperate storytelling to try to win them to his point of view.

Man of La Mancha is a story woven into a story that is ultimately about the stories we choose to tell ourselves and others. Iowa City Community Theatre holds up its end of the arrangement by delivering a beautifully told rendition of this beloved story-within-a-story, keeping the audience as enthralled as the prisoners become. From the moment we enter the space, we are transported. The inmates wander, keeping varying degrees of engagement with each other and their surroundings, maintaining distinct behaviors and characters. The set design (Michael Blake) is lovely and evocative, with unobtrusive pieces that appear seemingly out of nowhere for use in the action.

Lane carries the title role of the show quite well, with the right balance of charm and wit to realize all iterations of his character. His voice is powerful, and well-suited to this score, although there were some balance issues with the orchestra early in the show. His physical work is less specific than his vocal - although the decision was made to add white to his hair, the character's age was never clear. If timelessness was the goal, then it was achieved - but I wanted to see a more grounded representation. As Don Quixote, his fits of weakness were sporadic and incongruous and, although the similarities are more compelling than the differences anyway, there was no clear break between Cervantes and his role. Still, Lane's storytelling skills are palpable. He draws the audience in with every word.

Larry Newman as Sancho Panza was a fantastic foil to Lane's Don Quixote. Their interplay is bliss to watch, and their voices blend beautifully when they sing together. The two actors are matched well in skill; however, their performance styles seem quite different, which makes for a grittiness between them that pushes each to his best work.

Heather Michele Lawler as Aldonza;
Larry Newman as Sancho Panza
The heart of this story is Aldonza, and Heather Michele Lawler is a delight to watch in this role. She is a captivating scene partner; it is possible that it was a directing choice to have Aldonza bring out the highest quality performances in all around her, but it felt more like a natural reaction to Lawler's investment in each scene. She has a stunning voice, but unfortunately, she struggles at the top of her range. Despite the few notes that she didn't always reach, her presence on stage was luminescent.

Colin Nies, as Duke/Dr. Carrasco, was another stand-out performance. There was never a moment when he was not fully engaged, and his transitions between roles set a high mark for the rest of the cast to aim towards. He was blessed in that his characters had arguably the most growth throughout the play, but he made every moment of it believable, right down to the tear-jerking ending.

The ensemble of this piece was something of a mixed bag. There were some solos that seemed either poorly prepared or ill-considered, and I found a couple of characters, such as Glen Schmitz's choices as Captain of the Inquisition, a bit confusing and distracting. However, there were prominent performances as well. Celine Se-in Kim's voice is astounding, both in her solo as Antonia and in the choral numbers. Emily Basili and Audrey Thompson-Wallace, in particular, were a joy to watch, every time they could be seen. I loved the conceit of arcing the ensemble as an audience for Cerventes' (and each others') performance, but found it frustrating that the same actors were generally in the same locations, some of which were not visible. I trust that many other interesting performances were being given that simply couldn't be seen.

Kehry Anson Lane as Don Quixote de la Mancha
One thing that was notably absent from the program was any credit for choreography or fight choreography. I suppose this is a testament, then, to the blocking of directors Brett Borden and Jaret Morlan. The fights were not all perfectly illustrated, but they were well-designed, and some were quite elegant. A scene that deserves particular mention is the one in which actors are moving as chess pieces across the stage. Not strictly choreography, I suppose, but so smooth and specific that it could well have been. The directors generally showed significant command of a somewhat difficult-to-maneuver space.

Overall, this production is a powerful rendition of a story that never goes out of fashion. If you need to be inspired to dream, impossibly, take the time to see this show. Man of La Mancha runs through May 4 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. Tickets and info available here.

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