Octavio Solis knew the monumental task he faced in adapting Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century literary landmark “Don Quixote.” The two-part doorstopper is considered the foundational modern novel, a seminal work that influenced countless writers from Dostoyevsky and Dumas to Twain and Tennessee Williams.
As his adaptation of ”Don Quixote” evolved over the years, Solis realized he needed to seize the epic saga away from Cervantes and treat “Quixote” in a way that would resonate in today’s world, stand on its own terms, and reflect his personal experience as a Mexican-American who grew up near the border in El Paso, Texas.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival originally commissioned Solis to adapt the novel for a 2009 production at that storied theater. He wrote what he calls “a fun version of the play that told the story and was closer to the spirit of the novel than I imagined it would be . . . but it didn’t feel like me." It was only when California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Eric Ting and director KJ Sanchez encouraged Solis to write a fully reimagined version of “Quixote” for a 2018 production there that Solis finally made the play his own.
“Eric Ting told me, ‘I want to do this. But I think you can go further.' He thought I was being way too faithful, way too precious and too deferential to Mr. Cervantes," says Solis, over the phone from his farm near Medford, Ore. "He said, ‘You need to wrest that book from Cervantes, claim it for yourself, and do your spin on it. I’m more interested in producing an Octavio Solis play than I am in seeing Cervantes faithfully adapted to the stage.’ I just had no idea how much further I could go.”
The resulting play, “Quixote Nuevo,” connected more closely to his own experience. “I felt like I’d come home,” Solis says. “I was able to make my ‘Quixote,’ on my own territory, in my own mind, and using my own palette, and I was able to address the issues that are important to me.” Solis’s poetic and dazzling drama arrives at the Huntington Avenue Theatre Friday through Dec. 8, produced by the Huntington Theatre Company in association with Hartford Stage and the Alley Theatre in Houston.
Solis, who was a consultant on the hit animated Disney/Pixar film “Coco,” shifted the action from 17th-century La Mancha, Spain, to the Trump-era borderlands near El Paso. And instead of a wannabe knight who’s been seemingly driven mad, the central character in “Quixote Nuevo” is a retired college professor, Jose “Joe” Quijano, a Cervantes scholar now saddled with worsening Alzheimer’s. Emilio Delgado, best known for his 44-year stint as tenderhearted repairman Luis on "Sesame Street,” plays the increasingly befuddled Joe, who’s been cared for by his frustrated sister and a doting niece.
His sister plans to move Joe to an assisted living residence, but before that happens, he disappears. Unable to separate fantasy from reality, a confused Quijano comes to believe he’s Don Quixote, brandishing a rusty old sword and a bedpan as a helmet, as he sets off to find the migrant farm girl he fell in love with as a boy. “As he starts to slip away, he starts conflating his own past with the events of the novel,” Solis says.
In this version, instead of Quixote slaying windmills that he mistakes for giants, Quijano tries to take down the Border Patrol’s surveillance balloons. Wandering the desert with an ice cream vendor whom he persuades to become his sidekick, Sancho, Quijano finds himself pursued by a roving band of guitar-playing “Calacas,” apparitions from the spirit world, not to mention the spectral figure of Death.
“Don Quixote” was partly a satire of the chivalric romances, featuring heroic male characters and fantastical adventures, that were popular at the time. Solis points out that “all that sword and sorcery stuff” — from “Harry Potter” to “Game of Thrones” — is pervading pop culture once again.
“Cervantes wanted to write something to say: Life is more interesting than that! So he created this knight who wants to go live as one of those ‘Game of Thrones'-type characters, but then he comes in contact with real life, and it's so different. And that clash between what we fancy and what's real is where literature lives."
With “Quixote Nuevo,” Solis wanted to explore “cultural identity and cultural memory, as well as individual memory of our own past, how fickle it is and how changeable it is, how it's both a muse and a monster, how it sweetens our soul and torments it at the same time.”
As someone who grew up on the southern border, Solis says the push-pull between the different sides of his Mexican-American heritage is central to his cultural identity. "That tension is our culture. That's what I'm learning. America won't let us be fully American. They're always going to question that. And we can't be fully Mexican, because Mexico doesn't claim us. So we're caught in the middle.”
In the process, he says, “we reinvent the things that they give us and turn them into something new, something different, that then serves our needs, whether it’s the food, the cars, the art, the songs, the clothes, the lingo even. And it's all present in ‘Quixote Nuevo,’ this phantasmagoric, kaleidoscopic trip that my Joe Quijano travels on as he starts to slip away into dementia.”
The human imagination — the necessity to dream — is central to the story, says Delgado. “My character decides to go on this quest that he’s had in the back of his mind and in his spirit all his life, and he escapes everybody else’s reality and follows his imagination, thereby causing a panic because he gets lost out in the desert."
Declares Sanchez, the director, “That’s one of my favorite parts of the play — this beautiful thread about his family and friends trying to figure out: Do they keep reminding him of their names despite his loss of memory? Or do they join him in the world of his imagination?"
Solis notes that his play asks several questions including, “Can we mend the past? Can we also go backwards in the same way we go forward? . . . Every time we look back at some historical period, we see it in a new light because of who we are now, and it changes us because of that knowledge.”
“Putting ourselves under that kind of scrutiny is always a little dangerous and painful,” Solis concludes. “But I think we do it for our own healing, and this man really needs healing. I think that’s what literature does. So there’s a little bit of me fixing myself, repairing myself in writing 'Quixote Nuevo.’ ”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company in association with Hartford Stage and Alley Theatre. At the Huntington Avenue Theatre, Nov. 15-Dec. 8. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org