Theatre preview: "Don Quixote: a pilgrimage" gives novel a more personal and universal appeal

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

When Available Light Theatre decided to tackle “Don Quixote” for its upcoming stage performance “Don Quixote: a pilgrimage,” the approach was more about finding the thematic resonance of the novel than adapting its sweeping narrative. Along with members of Available Light, writer Jennifer Schlueter and director Matt Slaybaugh spent months examining the massive novel with the goal of mining aspects that were meaningful on both a personal and universal level.

“The core company members of Available Light worked with Matt and I about what still struck them as relevant today and what they wanted to make,” Schlueter said during a phone interview. “In many ways, this isn’t a straight-up adaptation of ‘Don Quixote,’ and nobody should have to feel like you have to read the [novel] before coming in. We’ve blown it open from the inside. The book is super long — 900 pages — and it’s about these people questing for something maybe they will or won’t find. And that’s a kind of perennial story that you could find in almost any novel, ever. So we stuck with that as a core thread and built another story inside of it.”

Encapsulating the most crucial aspects of the novel was a collaborative process among Available Light members, with each reading 100 pages and pulling out the most important ideas. The result was unexpected — one that moves away from the titular character.

“The process was fascinating. As we were going along, we were seeing how everyone had their own take on the book, and what they were drawn to and responded to the most. It was unusually surprising,” Slaybaugh said. “It’s not the things you normally see highlighted, say in the musical ‘Man of La Mancha,’ or in some of the other adaptations and interpretations that exist. Most focus on the character of Don Quixote and most of us in this show found him to be sort of the least interesting thing in the book.”

For “Don Quixote: a pilgrimage,” there are some structural similarities. The story follows Isabel (played by Acacia Leigh Duncan) as she makes her own pilgrimage across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. Even though she traverses this 500-mile path — and meets a number of colorful characters with their own stories along the way, including book characters Sancho Panza (Quixote’s squire) and Rocinante (Quixote’s horse) — Isabel’s actual journey is an inner-personal one.

“She sure is [looking for something better], and like Don Quixote and all the characters in the book she’s got some problems, some real flaws. I think what people have said about the book is it’s full of cruelties. Don Quixote is constantly causing terrible problems for the people around him, and yet they love him anyways. I wanted to hang on to that for Isabel; to make her imperfect and in some ways inarticulate. She can’t always say what it is that she wants, until we all find out together what that is,” Schlueter said. “In Don Quixote’s own loosening grip on reality, some people have looked at that as sort of a madness or dementia. But there’s a way in which his distancing from what’s going on really speaks to what artists do a lot of the time. We look for what seems to be happening inside of something else.”

While one can find many parallels between Isabel and the man who tilted at windmills, both Schlueter and Slaybaugh thought Isabel was more a way to convey the ideas present in the novel because this is where the timeless themes exist. Schlueter pointed out how Quixote’s character is merely a representation of longing within the human condition, saying how Miguel de Cervantes’ “savvy writing” was more concerned with universal contemplations than creating a tangible plot. And attempting to convey that complex and extensive — and occasionally meandering — narrative is where a number of previous adaptations have failed. For “Don Quixote: a pilgrimage,” Available Light Theatre used a personal approach because that would translate best with any audience.

“We were very aware of some of the failed adaptations and the fact the work is a monumental, marvelous monolithic thing that people have been banging their heads against for centuries. That became part of our focus. I’m trying to figure out the most intimate and personal reflection of the experience we were all having with the book. Rather than try to represent everything that ‘Don Quixote’ is to everybody, we focused on what we were all experiencing together,” Slaybaugh said. “The play — like the book — remains really open and there seems to be room for everybody to find their own personal story and viewpoint as they watch it.”

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Columbus Performing Arts Center, Van Fleet Theatre

Through April 12

549 Franklin Ave., Downtown