Hope, Even in Fear:

Man of La Mancha
Thalian Hall, main stage
310 Chestnut St.
8/31-9/4, 9/9-11; 8 p.m.
Sun. matinees, 3 p.m. •$23-$25

Opera House Theatre Company’s “Man of La Mancha” features Robin Dale Robertson as Don Quixote and Tony Rivenbark as Sancho. Courtesy photo.

It’s a story that has been told and retold in many ways—a true classic, where our heroes are optimistic and imaginative, even if pitted against cynicism. Don Quixote has been conceived in literature, movies and even TV shows, including on PBS’s “Wishbone” (”two paws way up!”). A more traditional take on the tale of the failed author, soldier, actor and tax collector Miguel de Cervantes (a.k.a Alonso Quijana, a.k.a Don Quixote) takes place live on the Thalian Hall main stage this week.

Originally to be directed and choreographed by Ron Chisholm, Chisholm had to bow out of Opera House Theatre Company’s show due to scheduling conflicts. Founder and artistic director Lou Criscoulo picked up the pieces, all of which represent a pivotal role in his career. His knowledge of “Man of La Mancha” runs deep, so much so he knows every word and note.

“Woe be unto the actor that tries to fudge a line,” Robin Robertson, who plays Quixote, quips.

Criscuolo performed the original Broadway production for over seven years. Starting as a Muleteer, he worked his way up through the cast, save the parts of Aldonza, Antonia, the Housekeeper and Dr. Carrasco. To say the play is in good hands is an understatement. In fact, it is the fourth time Criscuolo has directed the show in Wilmington. Sadly, it will be the last, according to company manager Alice Sherwood.

“The show is very difficult, very demanding, both physically and emotionally,” Sherwood tells. “Lou stages [“Man of La Mancha”] the way it was originally done: on a raked stage. The prisoners play the characters in Cervantes’ story, and the action all takes place in the dungeon.”

Set in a prison of the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes and his manservant are arrested for trying to foreclose on a church and wait for questioning by the Inquisition. To save his manuscript from the fire, Cervantes tells the prisoners the story he has written.

“This show is all about hope in the face of tremendous odds,” Sherwood continues. “It is very fitting that closing day of this production is the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The theme of this show—good will always triumph over evil—could not be more appropriate.”

encore spoke with lead actors Heather Setzler (Aldonza) and Robertson about the show.

encore: How long have you worked in theatre? 
Heather Setzler: Since May of 2004, all in Wilmington.

Robin Robertson: I began acting at the age of 12 and obtained a BFA in acting/directing from UNCG in 1981. My formative and young adult years were spent in my hometown of Burlington, NC, giving me the opportunity to develop theatre skills with the Gallery Players community theatre.

[I encountered] a chance meeting with Lou one evening downtown, and subsequently auditioned for OHTC’s “My Fair Lady,” which began my relationship with Lou and company and has continued today. The very first show I attended at Thalian was an OHTC production. I quickly noted their consistently high standards, with regard to production values. Although, I’ve worked with nearly all the companies in town [since], the vast majority has been with OHTC.

e: How has it been working on “La Mancha”? 
RR: It seems that one of the ‘types’ of characters I am considered as a go-to actor for is the proverbial bad guy. I’ve played Pontious Pilate, Judas, Capt. Hook, Dracula, Sweeney Todd, and various thugs and heavies in plays over the years. Playing such roles is fun, but it’s nice to be playing a classic yet unlikely hero for a change.
Being directed by a man who is so richly associated with the show’s Broadway history means a lot. The cast is made up of what is otherwise known as Wilmington “theatre veterans” and the next wave of considerably younger, talented actors. It is fitting tribute to the show, OHTC and Lou.

HS: Lou knows this show, so he has a very specific vision. He’s very hands-on and pushes us to really understand the characters. Working on this production has been physically challenging. Aldonza has a couple of intense scenes, one even includes some acrobatics. Let’s just say I have a lot of bruises and sore muscles!

e: Can you relate to your characters?
HS: At face value Aldonza is not necessarily relatable. She’s a wench, a whore. In one of her songs, she talks about how she was “spawned in a ditch by a mother who left her there.” That’s how she started her life: no parents, no guidance, knowing she was scum. Most of us are fortunate enough that we can’t relate to that, but looking closer at Aldonza as a person, there are definitely things to relate to. Throughout the course of the show, Don Quixote swears she has true beauty and worth. After a lot of hesitation and disbelief, she starts to feel a bit of hope, but then a group of men cut her back down to size. I think a lot of people have been in situations like that. What I like about Aldonza is eventually she changes the way she sees herself.

RR: I tend to be more jaded and somewhat sarcastic (a quality I have developed into a fine art over the years). The only resemblance I might have to Cervantes is that of being an actor and a playwright. However, as I grow older, and see the world and my life in it being mellowed and tempered—and perhaps “Man of La Mancha” is providing some impetus for that—I wouldn’t be disappointed in becoming more like Don Quixote. There’s something very noble in having faith and hope, and seeing the very best in people. That’s something I could always possess more of. I would imagine, a lot of people might agree they could, too.

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