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'La Mancha' restores faith in how the world ought to be

Once again, Camelot Theatre Company Artistic Director Livia Genise has directed a winning musical theater production with "Man of La Mancha," which opened Friday. There are five musicians in the orchestra and 20 people on stage with dance numbers, fight scenes, horses and a troupe of gypsies, but things never feel crowded.

As soon as the stage lights come up, we know exactly where we are and what the stakes are. Scenic Designer Donald Zastoupil has created a very credible dungeon in 17th century Spain, complete with a pool of water and a fire under metal grates. Jeremy Johnson's solitary guitar playing and Audrey Flint's flamenco-like choreography introduce us to the ill-fated souls in the prison awaiting their "trial" before the Inquisition.

Into this bleak world are thrown the new prisoners: Miguel de Cervantes (Don Matthews) and his assistant, Sancho Panza (Keith Fuller). Tax collector, soldier and author, Cervantes had the temerity to foreclose on a church that failed to pay its taxes. While the prisoners find amusement in this, they also accuse Cervantes of being an idealist, taking it upon themselves to perform their own courtroom proceedings while awaiting their fate. First they take all of the new captives' belongings, then threaten to burn a bundle of papers that Cervantes values dearly.

In his defense, Cervantes pleads his case by recounting the tale of one Don Quixote of La Mancha, an aging man who has gone mad from reading books about chivalry and who sets out into the world as a knight errant: "the wisest madman in the world or the maddest wiseman." To help unfold his tale, Cervantes applies makeup to his face, turning himself into the moonstruck Don Quixote. He then enjoins the prisoners to play the parts of the other characters in the story. Like the wily Scheherazade in "The Arabian Nights," Cervantes keeps his fate at bay with each cliff-hanging addition to his storytelling.

Camelot's production of "Man of La Mancha" follows the original 1965 Broadway version by having the play take place on a single set so the audience can imagine the different scenes just as Cervantes hoped his fellow prisoners would.

Matthews is a beguilingly compassionate and crazed Quixote. With his hair sticking out at all angles, his eyes wide with insanity and innocence, he clearly has "(laid) down the melancholy burden of sanity." We believe his earnest desire to "Take a deep breath of life and consider how it should be lived." To Matthews befalls the challenge of making the classic anthem "The Impossible Dream" ring both true and immediate. He does both, wonderfully.

Renee Hewitt plays Aldonza, the scullery "alley cat" who becomes Quixote's fantastically idealized paragon of womanhood, Dulcinea. Hewitt's Aldonza is both scrappy and vulnerable, a woman born of the streets and surrounded by desperate and violent men. While her songs are not the most beautiful in the score, Hewitt sings them as if they could be.

With the addition of the Inquisition and the implied rape and beating of Aldonza, there is a darkness that hangs over this telling of the Don Quixote story. The madness of the lone knight of La Mancha is not a permanent antidote for the madness of this world. But his is a dream worth believing in — if only to glimpse the world as it could be.

The show runs Thursdays through Sundays through April 15. For tickets, call www.CamelotTheatre.org or call 535-5250.

Reach Arts and Entertainment Editor Richard Moeschl at 776-4486, or e-mail rmoeschl@mailtribune.com.