Theatergoers expecting hay-strewn Spanish gaols and tunics from the Middle Ages may be surprised by the stark and modern set design of San Jose Playhouse’s Man of La Mancha.
“You will see chain link fencing and sparse bunk beds,” says Shannon Guggenheim, the musical’s producer.
The fictionalized tale of Miguel de Cervantes and his ingenious gentleman Don Quixote, this version of the classic musical features an updated setting. No longer hauled into a dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes is now sequestered in an unnamed detention center in what appears to be a very recent America. Across the back of the theater looms an ominous, recognizable symbol of statehood—what Guggeinheim describes as a “Trump wall.”
“We’re trying to make sure that this piece still stands on its own as an enduring piece of classic literature, but that we can also shine a light and look at the suffering we’re going through right now,” Guggenheim says.
Before beginning work on the production, cast and crew spent a few days connecting and discussing the play’s themes. A normal part of the process for the company, it felt particularly necessary this time around.
“The vast majority of our cast had their own immigration story, whether it was them personally or their [immediate] family,” Guggenheim says. She describes how one cast member was very nearly part of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. “That was pretty compelling work to go through those first few days.”
In one sense, there has never been a better time for a Quixote story. In Cervantes’s 1605 original, an aged gentleman is driven mad by a massive volume of writing about knights and chivalry, compelling him to a life of frenzied, confusing action as “Don Quixote.” Today, countless internet users are driven to ends one can only call quixotic, compelled by a similarly massive volume of conspiracy theory (often while taking on equally silly self-applied names).
For the Cervantes of the musical, however—as well as for Guggenheim and San Jose Playhouse—all that really matters is keeping hope alive.
“That’s what he’s trying to do, give them hope, something to grab onto,” Guggenheim says. “Of the shows that we’ve got in our season, this one has such heart. It’s inspiring.”
Man of La Mancha
Opens Sat, 7:30pm, $55+
3Below, San Jose