Theatre Review: ‘Quixote’ at Alexander Kasser Theatre

Posted By: Jacquelyn Claireon: March 26, 2017

“Quixote” is an extravagant and unpredictable experiment into the Quarks and Leptons, or building blocks, of the sounds and body that constitute a story. What I mean to say is that this “production” feels like you are witnessing the scientific findings of years dedicated to understanding the atomic nuclei of the theatrical form. This work has been under the microscope for two years (or two hundred) in the HOWL theatrical lab, which was made possible by Peak Performances’ extended residency program, “PeARL.” It is an extraordinary achievement.

A small miracle of tone and text.

It feels like you were put inside a particle accelerator that charged elementary particles inside yourself, that you were totally unaware existed before in your make-up. It asks your brain to shift a little to see the morphing matrix in your periphery. It’s a musical/opera/soundscape    with living artworks, functional sculptures, costumes with personalities, investigations of how the body moves through time, object instrumentation housed in paper from torn pages of a book. It’s a totally unique way of seeing and hearing a story.

The piece uses elements of “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra as the springboard to deconstruct the idea of “storytelling.” This novel has been credited with being the founding work of western literature and is therefore the perfect conduit to explore intertextuality and metatheatre techniques that lay a story bare and then suitably “clothed.” The novel’s episodic form is followed in the structure of the performance.

We discover Alonso Quixano on his deathbed as his life flashes before him. His memories of how books “created” and brought his chivalrous knight archetype Don Quixote into the open assault his senses. He is forced to experience his shortcomings, fantasies, and humiliations  as fast transforming nightmares that line the passage to the other side – to the “end of story.” We see flashes of imagery from the famous novel, and at other times a moment from the  book gets the weight of intense dissection.

Amy Beth Kirsten has breach birthed the libretto and composition of this complex equation.  It’s a monumental work that defies categorization. It’s what happens when talent is given space, time, and funding to grow. A small miracle of tone and text. She sculpts a new way to “hear.” I have no idea how one would actually notate this score. I am not sure how you would visually represent the “music” of breath, paper, tearing, tuning forks, and scratching. It must  be an artwork in itself.

Mark DeChiazza is the visionary director and designer of the pages that come to life in extraordinary detail. The visual language he has created to make words transform into imagery, that we usually only reserve for our daydreaming, is lush and exciting. The way he gets books to “speak” and how he frames Don Quixote’s “ladylove” in petals in the sky, hanging in raining paper pages pulled taut, is beyond beautiful. DeChiazza also takes the  part of the dying Alonso Quixano moving in and out of the action in delirious rapture. He is a powerful anchor around which the memory chaos pivots.

This is a strong ensemble piece where the HOWL company members – Lindsay Kesselman (soprano), Hai-Ting Chinn (mezzo-soprano), Kirsten Sollek (contralto), and DeChiazza – join forces with members of Sandbox Percussion – Ian Rosenbaum, Victor Caccese, Terry Sweeney, and Jonathan Allen – to perform and play this piece. I have no idea how they have mastered the complexities of the music. They sing, play instruments, and dance throughout, sometimes in the air, on mechanical horseback, in chains, on an operating table…

Sweeney also inhabits the role of Don Quixote, magnificently bringing the fool to life in all of his painful disconnects. He was exceptional in the role. The three female singers got to perform solos of breathtaking proportions, perfectly pitched in their particular vocal type.

They also formed a trio of narrators, creating interesting dissonance. The Sandbox   Percussion players wielded the heartbeat of the piece. They literally created the rhythm of life in every moment. Every single performer on the stage was completely mesmerizing as you watched their exceptional talent put to great use.

Choreographer Denisa Musilova found a new physical language to express the way fiction speaks and sings. The bodies were travelling through space and time in the same mathematically complex ways that mirrored how the sound was moving. The movements were also talking and dreaming. She made the body move seamlessly with the specific sounds being made and they seemed to have been coming from the same well of creativity. You could see the evidence of hard work over a very long incubation period.

The costumes were characters in their own right. Sylvianne Shurman’s wearable works of art tickled the imagination and were delightful eye candy creations. I particularly loved her Ladylove “bloom” and Don Quixote’s inspired “knight” gown of many parts.

Mary Ellen Stebbins’ lighting design captured the fractured delirium of a dying mind with such brilliant devices. It was like being inside Quixano’s head, and the electrical pulses of his brain lit up and pulled your focus to the next image. It was extremely evocative and atmospheric.

Palmer Hefferan’s sound design was a magical feat of igniting the senses and opening our ears to all of the sounds in motion and conversation and discord.

I left hearing the music stored in every mundane interaction with inanimate objects. The small, siren, squeak of the door out to the parking lot, the monotone hum of the overhead heater in the train platform waiting area, the ripping sound of zippers on puffy jackets…I could hear the song of the bumping hadrons.

This production asks a lot of you. It is not for the faint-hearted or for someone looking for an evening of easy story consumption. You are inspired to work as hard as the performers in the piece. They ask you to engage completely in the experiment, the equation, the fission. You leave feeling like you have had an “aha” moment after working for hours in a lab dissecting a problem. It makes you feel very clever.


Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission.