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Round House Theatre’s dark and playful ‘Quixote Nuevo’ strikes a contemporary chord

Herbert Siguenza as Jose Quijano (Don Quixote) in the Round House Theatre production of Octavio Solis’s play “Quixote Nuevo.” (Margot Schulman Photography/Round House Theatre)
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Wearing a bedpan for a helmet and salvaged auto parts for armor, the hero of Round House Theatre’s “Quixote Nuevo” roams across boundaries. Geographically and temporally, the elderly professor is at Texas’s present-day border with Mexico. Medically and psychologically, his sharp mind is sliding into dementia. And metaphysically, he’s straying across the divide separating reality from myth — or so you’d judge from the vivacious skeleton figures who materialize periodically.

Dressed in jewel-colored clothes and headpieces, and reminiscent of iconic Mexican imagery, the skeletons sing, dance and comment as Don Quixote strives to vanquish evil, find a lost love and keep his relatives from moving him to the Fountainbleu Assisted Living Center.

Bracing in their theatricality, yet meaningfully reflecting on Quixote’s betwixt-ness, the skeletons, a.k.a. calacas, are among the pleasures of director Lisa Portes’s vibrant and funny production. Caveats: Octavio Solis’s 2018 play tends toward sprawling looseness, as indeed does its inspiration, Cervantes’s 17th-century masterpiece “Don Quixote.” And Solis metes out backstory and Cervantes echoes with a clarity that sometimes feels too deliberate (though the touch is lighter than in his “Mother Road”). Still, audiences up for 2½ hours at the theater will relish the terrific acting by the all-Latino cast, as well as the abundant Tejano music and Helen Huang’s splendid costumes and puppets.

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The cast’s expressiveness, incidentally, helps ensure that the ample scatterings of Spanish will be clear to those who don’t speak the language. Also adding accessibility: a filmed version available online starting Thursday.

Milagros Ponce de León’s set, a dusty plain with weatherworn buildings, evokes both Cervantes-era Spain and contemporary Texas. Professor Jose Quijano (Herbert Siguenza) treks through this doubled milieu after his sister (Isabel Quintero) hatches the Fountainbleu plan. Traveling as Don Quixote, with his steed, Rocinante — actually a tricycle and horse skull — he cajoles ice-pop seller Manny Diaz (Ernie González Jr.) to be his Sancho Panza. But the eerie Papa Calaca (Raúl Cardona) hovers nearby, a sign not only of Quixote’s mortality but also of migrant deaths and other tragedies at the border. Gradually, the themes of immigration, literature, fear and loss refract and converge.

First glimpsed in a bathrobe, waving a rapier, Siguenza’s Quixote is funny yet hugely poignant; the haunted stoicism in his eyes, at one point, is heart-rending. Also marvelous is González, whose comic timing makes the down-to-earth Manny hilarious, even when the play is most obviously milking incongruity. “I’ll be as immortal as Orlando and Gawain!” Quixote proclaims, referencing chivalric heroes. “Were they the ones who came up with the Macarena?” Manny asks suspiciously.

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Other fine turns include Peter Pasco as a canny bartender and Adelina Mitchell as the owner of that run-down bar, Rosario’s Lounge and Karaoke.

Cardona’s Papa Calaca, macho and sinister yet singing and bantering, is the one who directs Quixote to Rosario’s, where Pancho Villa’s pickled trigger finger is kept in a jar. Like so much of “Quixote Nuevo,” Death here is a serious force with a pleasingly playful side.

Quixote Nuevo, by Octavio Solis. Directed by Lisa Portes; music director, Jesse Sanchez; lighting design, Alberto Segarra; composer and sound designer, David Molina; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; assistant director, Dylan Arredondo. With Jyline Carranza, Sarita Ocón and Lawrence Redmond. Two-and-a-half hours. $55-$78 (in-person); $32.50 (online, starting Sept. 23). Through Oct. 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda.

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