Puppets steal the show

Man of La Mancha

Don Quixote needs his fellow actors to feed him his lines, and his gestures, in <i>Man of La Mancha</i>.

Don Quixote needs his fellow actors to feed him his lines, and his gestures, in Man of La Mancha.

Rated 4.0

Man of La Mancha needs no introduction; the Music Circus has staged this very familiar Broadway musical seven times. But the UC Davis Theatre Department is proving old war horses can yield new surprises with a most unusual adaptation. Life-sized puppets play Don Quixote, Sancho and others. Going in, we were curious. Would the audience’s eyes dwell on the colorful puppets, or inevitably gravitate toward the singing human operators?

Director Art Grueneberger makes no attempt to hide the puppeteers. They are not shrouded in black, as in last year’s Love Suicides at Sonezaki at CSUS, which emulated the Japanese bunraku style of puppetry. Grueneberger turns the story of Quixote into a play-within-a-play, quite literally, throughout this production—which is entirely set in a Spanish dungeon during the Inquisition.

The large puppets by Kristen Phillips are operated by three people. They’re marvelous, particularly Quixote. With his long face and beard, he becomes a credible character, as does Aldonza, weary with tousled hair, and Dr. Carrasco, with a privileged smirk. The big puppets have human hands (each belonging to a different actor standing behind) allowing them to clasp swords or lances. They move with remarkable smoothness and coordination.

Mario Castro Martinez (Cesar Chavez in last year’s Let the Eagle Fly) sings and operates Quixote, and does well in both capacities. The other singers (Laura Snell as Aldonza, Richard Hess as Sancho) don’t have big-league voices, but they bring their characters to life.

There’s a cast of nearly 30, a big gloomy set by Darrell Winn, lots of costumes by Roxanne Femling, and an 18-piece band playing behind bars.