Cockpit's 'Man of La Mancha' is promising but uneven

June 23, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Cockpit in Court has dubbed its 20th anniversary season "the possible dream" -- a reworked reference to the best known song from its opening musical, "The Man of La Mancha." However, due to uneven casting, the dream remains merely possible, instead of fully realized.

Ironically, the performer who sings "The Impossible Dream" is chiefly responsible for keeping this production's dream from coming true. For even though lead actor Gilbert Polt rallies when it comes time to sing this big number, he is neither sufficiently compelling nor charismatic in the dual roles of Don Quixote and Cervantes.

What nearly rescues the production's dream is the performance of Polt's co-star, Jane E. Brown, as the earthy kitchen wench Aldonza, whom starry-eyed Quixote christens "Dulcinea." Not only does Brown display vocal power, quality and beauty, but she captures Aldonza's tough spirit and latent romanticism, inhabiting the character far more completely than Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton, who is currently playing the role on Broadway.

In case this much-revived 1965 musical, which has a score by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion and a script by Dale Wasserman, NTC has passed you by, the above reference to dual roles stems from the chief conceit of the show. Instead of attempting a faithful adaptation of Cervantes' 17th century novel, Wasserman created a musical-within-a-musical, or, more precisely, a trial-within-a-trial. Imprisoned and awaiting trial by the Inquisition, Cervantes is forced to defend his novel in an impromptu trial conducted by his fellow inmates.

It's a neat theatrical device, although Cockpit's production, directed by Eric J. Potter, seems to use this theatricality as an excuse to be overly dramatic technically. This is reflected not only in Clare Rowe's steeply raked stage, painted in a rather lurid palette of blues and greens, but most especially in Paul Sullivan's exaggerated lighting and sound effects.

At the same time, one of the major fight scenes could stand a little more drama. When Quixote attempts to defend Aldonza's honor by taking on a band of rough muleteers, the brawl seems more comic than dangerous, particularly when the wayward knight gets stuck in a ladder -- not by accident, but by deliberately placing the thing over his head. (This is not the case, incidentally, in the subsequent frightening scene of Aldonza's abduction, in which Polt's Quixote is safely offstage.)

The production features a couple of other noteworthy performances. Edward J. Peters thoroughly embodies Cervantes' description of his character, Dr. Carrasco, as "a man who carries his own self-importance as if he were afraid of breaking it." And George Maranto is all spunk and likability as Quixote's loyal squire, Sancho, although he has a tendency to appear a tad too cute.

When Aldonza asks Quixote why he embarks on such ludicrous exploits, he responds, "I hope to add some measure of grace to the world." That is also, of course, what this production hopes to do. And it does add "some measure" -- but not quite enough.

"Man of La Mancha" continues at Cockpit in Court at Essex Community College through June 28. Call (410) 522-1269.

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