At odds with ICE and in search of the Mexican Dulcinea, Quixote Nuevo is reborn as the shining knight of Chicanos
If at age 15 anyone had told me that Miguel de Cervantes’ celebrated chivalric novel Don Quixote could someday become a poignant social commentary on the reality of 21st-century America, I would have probably laughed in disbelief.
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, as a dedicated bookworm and wannabe (dare I say “aspiring”) writer, I rather enjoyed the 10th grade’s required reading list—along with the written reports, essays, and quizzes—that most of my high school peers had to suffer through. It included, of course, Cervante’s Don Quixote, a novel that basically embodies all that is sacred in the tradition of classic Spanish literature—imagine the Holy Grail of all writing in the Spanish language—and which has influenced American writers from Mark Twain to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Granted, it’s one of the all-time greatest works of literature. But the idea that we could somehow—in the age of Tinder-based dating and short-lived entertainment via TikTok videos—relate to a self-proclaimed knight tilting at windmills on a scrawny old steed in a quest for his one true love seemed very far-fetched.
Well, not for Octavio Solis.
Quixote Nuevo, his adaptation of Cervantes’ classic, reimagines the chivalric saga through the lens of Latino identity and the tensions surrounding immigration and race in present-day America. A production by the Huntington Theater Company in association with Hartford Stage and the Alley Theater in Houston, the show plays at the Huntington Avenue Theater through Dec 8.
Now, the legendary land of La Mancha, in medieval Spain, turns into La Plancha, a border town in modern-day Texas, where Jose Quijano, a retired college professor with worsening Alzheimer’s, finds himself lost in the epic tales of the classics he used to teach, unable to tell fantasy from reality.
For years, Quijano has lived with his sister Magdalena (Sarita Ocón) and his niece Antonia (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera), who takes care of him. But when he finds out that Magdalena plans to check him into an assisted living facility, he runs away, convinced that he is none other than Don Quixote, “the shining knight of Chicanos.”
Emilio Delgado, best known for his role as the colorful Luis, the Fix-it Shop owner on Sesame Street, delivers a brilliant performance of an often confused, soulful Quijano as he rides through the deserted borderlands atop his Rocinante—the noble steed being a crumbling old bicycle with a horse skull attached to it—wearing an armor of recycled autoparts and a bedpan for a helmet. He soon recruits Manny Diaz, a lighthearted ice cream vendor played by Juan Manuel Amador, to be his squire Sancho Panza, and together they embark on a journey to reunite the new Quixote with the long-lost, much yearned-for love of his youth, Dulcinea.
Masterfully directed by KJ Sanchez, the production showcases flamboyant moving scenography—dragged on and off the stage by the cast themselves—and lively Tejano music, including original songs that built a rich atmosphere: a tribute to Mexican-American heritage.
Deserving of special mention is the costume design by Rachel Anne Healy, whose remarkable work draws from traditional motives of Mexican culture to bring life to spectacular characters like the “Calacas,” the skeleton-faced, guitar-playing ensemble of spectres that haunts Quixote: a ghostly squad lead by Death himself, who wears an all-black, super-macho mariachi costume with a crown of colored feathers, reminiscent of Dia de los Muertos imagery.
Drizzled with Spanish words and songs, and distinctly funny cultural references—like Quijano taking his oath as a knight at a cantina, dubbed with Pancho Villa’s trigger finger—the comedic drama powerfully reflects on the migrant struggle and the deeper notions of what it means to belong.
From his knightly oath “to fight for the unemployed, the uninsured, the undocumented,” through his epic fight against the Border Patrol’s surveillance balloons, Quixote draws from and coexists with the realities and conflicts of Trump’s America. That is, for instance, listening to Cardenio Guzman de la Paz (Orlando Arriaga), a Salvadoran man—or perhaps just a mirage forever lost in the dry borderlands of Columpio del Diablo—who tells the riveting story of crossing the border and losing his family along the way. Or take Death’s declamation of the infamously well-known words: “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” It’s all there, within the dreams and visions that haunt Quixote, and yet as real as we experience it every day, via social media and daily news casts.
“The Wall” is another central theme of the show, evocative of Trump’s signature campaign promise of building a wall on the Mexican border. “A wall 10 feet tall along the border,” Sancho says, that gets a foot taller “every time Vicente Fox opens his dirty mouth.” But here, “The Wall” is also the final frontier between fantasy and reality, us and them, life and death.
Quixote Nuevo is an exploration of the universality of love, as opposed to the cultural barriers that seemingly separate us. To take this journey through the Texan desert is to learn one of Don Quixote’s timeless lessons: that doing what is right might at times seem utterly crazy. It takes courage to breach the walls, and sure, a hint of madness, too.
Quixote Nuevo is a production of the Huntington Theater Company, in association with Hartford Stage and the Alley Theater. Written by Octavio Solis and directed by KJ Sanchez. Through 12.8 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. huntingtontheatre.org