The roiling interior torment that is envy might not seem to lend itself to succinct dramatic expression. But director José Luis Arellano makes the emotion visible and audible at one point in his production of Jordi Casanovas’s play “Cervantes: El Último Quijote (Cervantes: The Last Quixote)” for GALA Hispanic Theatre. Partway through this trenchantly staged world premiere, the title character, the great Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, finds himself in a Madrid tavern, watching an impromptu play reading. Tavern habitues who happen to be actors perform a comic scene by a successful younger writer, Lope de Vega. Suddenly the dialogue transforms into music — lustrous opera that seems to fill the brightly lit tavern with additional color and sparkle.
Next, the same interpreters have a go at a script by Cervantes. The light turns pallid. A distorted droning sound drowns out the dialogue. The implication is clear: De Vega’s play is far the better piece, and the watching Cervantes knows it.
Not only does the metaphorical sequence wittily evoke a sensation many of us have experienced when contemplating achievements that outpace our own, but it also underscores the literary concerns that lie at the heart of Casanovas’s enjoyable potboiler. Commissioned by GALA and performed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death, “Cervantes” revels in sensational twists, at least a portion of which are based in the historical record.
Conspiracy. Adultery. Blackmail. Imprisonment and ransom. Defamatory sonnets. The looming specter of the Holy Inquisition. All these plot points feature in “Cervantes,” which, in this production, even includes a flagellation scene. (Produced with the Spanish theater company Acción Sur, “Cervantes” is performed in Spanish with English surtitles.)
Yet, despite such piquant storytelling elements, Catalan playwright Casanovas manages to keep the play’s central conflict hooked to the protagonist’s writing life. Much of the narrative concerns events that follow the 1605 publication of the first part of Cervantes’s seminal novel “Don Quixote.” Years later, the willful but introspective Cervantes (Óscar de la Fuente) learns that, before he has finished work on “Don Quixote, Part II,” a counterfeit manuscript with that title has gone on the market.
Outraged, Cervantes goes off in search of the culprit behind the bogus book, bringing along with him, as helper, a young man named Martín (Samy Khalil). During the course of the quest, Cervantes’s memories play out as flashbacks. A key recollection is his meeting, in that Madrid tavern, with de Vega (Eugenio Villota), whose ability to turn out crowd-pleasers seems to call into question the nature of Cervantes’s gifts. The older writer believes his own plays are more substantive and truthful. His rival disagrees. “Theater isn’t about putting essays on stage,” de Vega complains after watching an excerpt from a Cervantes tragedy.
There are certainly no staged essays here. Arellano endows this new production with brisk pacing, canny transitions, a stirring atmosphere and — particularly with the help of Christopher Annas-Lee’s dramatic lighting — striking visuals. (Silvia de Marta designed the stylized Spanish-landscape set and the streamlined period costumes; Mariano Vales composed the frequent underscoring.)
A deft, role-juggling cast helps give the tale tension, vividness and touches of humor. Among other turns, Khalil is an appealing Martín, and Luz Nicolás lends dignity and depth to Cervantes’s wife, Catalina.
De la Fuente excels at displaying Cervantes’s moments of self-doubt and his very healthy ego. At one point, Martín marvels that, while held in captivity in Algiers, the young Cervantes dared make three risky attempts to escape. Cervantes reacts with a flash of the confidence that surely helped make him a literary master. He slaps Martín on the head. “It was four!” he roars.
Cervantes: El Último Quijote (Cervantes: The Last Quixote), by Jordi Casanovas. Directed by José Luis Arellano; sound design, April Kelli Sturdivant; video, Álvaro Luna; properties, Alicia Tessari. With Erick Sotomayor, Soraya Padrao, José González and Eric Robledo. In Spanish with English subtitles. English translation, Heather McKay. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $25-$45. Through Oct. 2 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington. Call 202-234-7174 or visit galatheatre.org.