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'Don Quixote' at OSF

Laird Williamson figures that if Don Quixote were around today he'd buy a convertible and head for Las Vegas. But the fictional don had his mid-life crisis — at least in Miguel de Cervantes' imagination — in hardscrabble La Mancha in circa-1600 Spain.

"It's like the adventures of this guy from Podunkville, Iowa," says Williamson, who is directing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's world premiere stage version of the classic tale. "But his metaphors are in medieval chivalry."

When Bill Rauch wanted to put "Don Quixote" on the stage, he asked San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis to adapt the iconic novel, and he asked Williamson to direct.

"We thought it would be a good project for the Elizabethan Stage," Williamson says. "It has this epic sweep, which we can do."

A Chicago native who grew up on the theater scene there, Williamson has acted and directed for more than 40 years, chiefly in the western United States, also he's also worked at the Guthrie in Minnesota, Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He worked at American Conservatory Theatre and the Old Globe and first directed at OSF in 1999 in a memorable "Pericles."

He is no stranger to mixing the fantastical with the tragic. His production of Pedro Calderon de la Barca's "Life Is a Dream" in OSF's 2001 season featured an amazing puppet horse. Puppets play a big part in this "Don Quixote."

"Laird has some strong visual ideas," says puppeteer Lynn Jeffries. "But in the rehearsal process there's a lot of room for actors and collaborators to go where they think they should. He's extremely respectful of other peoples' processes."

Jeffries, one of the original members of Cornerstone Theatre in LA, along with Rauch, designed the puppets. Williamson also discussed the project with Solis, although much of the adaptation was done before he came aboard.

Miguel de Cervantes' masterpiece (full name: "The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha") is considered not only a jewel of the Golden Age of Spain but one of the founding works of modern literature. It filled two books published a decade apart, in 1605 and 1615. It is considered one of the first novels, a satire, a picaresque tale, a work of humanism and a shaper of modern Spanish.

It even gave a new word to English and other languages: quixotic, meaning the rash, perhaps fruitless, pursuit of romantic or extravagant ideas. The sprawling work is episodic in structure, with many mock-heroic tales, sub-plots and digressions.

Solis adapted the adventurous first book only, and the play has nothing to do with the second.

"It's a different mood," Williamson says of the second book. "It's less comic, darker. There's a lot of adventuring in this one.

"It's wish fulfillment, but also there's this idea of being guided by a belief in something higher."

That would be the inspiration the don finds in the character of "Dulcinea del Toboso," who lives only in his mind as a fair damsel and is based on a farm girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, who never appears.

The actors in "Don Quixote" will be joined by some three dozen puppets as Don Quixote's horse, Sancho Panza's donkey, sheep, geese, vultures and other critters.

"Certain things are called for in the script that need to be dealt with," Williamson says. "So I think the decision for me was, a great deal of what we do will dictate how the rest of the play looks."

Jeffries taught the two actors inside Don Quixote's horse, Rocinante, to operate the contrivance. The one in front will move the head and be the forelegs. The one in back will be the rear legs and will make the tail swing by swinging her head while wearing a helmet that operates the tail.

"I always wanted them," Williamson says of the puppets. "I did have to fight for them a little bit. It was something I had in mind from the get-go."

His hope is to transform the festival's stripped down Elizabethan Stage and lure the audience into a child-like world.

Laird Williamson, director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 'Don Quixote.' - Photo by Jennry Graham