Move over, “Man of La Mancha,’’ and make a little room for “Quixote Nuevo.’’
Working from the expansive template of Miguel de Cervantes’s sprawling “Don Quixote,’’ playwright Octavio Solis has fashioned a highly inventive meditation on old age and its sorrows — and on the gnawing desire for second chances that can arrive late in life — while also mining a rich vein of comedy. It’s a balancing act Cervantes might have admired.
Even as the top-notch Huntington Theatre Company production of “Quixote Nuevo’’ traces the chaotic odyssey of former literature professor Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado) — battling the onset of dementia, he is convinced he is Don Quixote, and has embarked on a quest to rescue his long-lost love — the play further ups the ante by diving squarely into the roiling currents of the present political moment to shine a compassionate light on the plight of undocumented immigrants.
That’s a lot to pack into one play, and the strain shows at times, but the toolkit of live theater is also pretty capacious. Director KJ Sanchez and her design team expertly deploy an array of devices that keep the stage of the Huntington Avenue Theatre brimming with life, even though the play is quite literally haunted by death, in the form of a spectral, black-clad figure who is played with charismatic command by Hugo E. Carbajal.
Solis, who grew up in El Paso, has set his play in a Texas border town and laced his script with references to President Trump’s proposed border wall, surveillance drones, and Mar-a-Lago. The playwright ably captures the floridly archaic language of his would-be knight errant. As he flails at the air with a sword, wearing a bedpan as a helmet, the 79-year-old Delgado (best-known for his longtime portrayal of repair shop owner Luis on “Sesame Street’’) certainly fits the physical description of Don Quixote by Sancho Panza in Cervantes’s novel as “the knight of the doleful countenance.’’ Delgado delivers a poignant portrayal in "Quixote Nuevo'' of a man whose mind, but not his will, is beginning to disintegrate under the assault of dementia, although the actor’s performance would benefit from a bit more emotional wattage.
Crucial to the success of any tale of Don Quixote is the personality of sidekick Sancho Panza, and “Quixote Nuevo’’ hit the jackpot with Juan Manuel Amador. He brings both humor and depth to the role of Manny Diaz, a shaved-ice vendor who is pressed into service as Jose’s squire, accompanying the knight-errant on his travels. As in the novel and, for that matter, “Man of La Mancha,’’ the 1965 musical adaptation of the novel, it is partly through the eyes of Sancho that we see, and come to understand, Don Quixote. Amador beautifully handles Manny’s evolution from bemused exasperation to the eventual realization that he needs to believe in their quest nearly as much as Jose does.
The object of that quest is Dulcinea, portrayed by the radiant Gisela Chípe (who doubles as Jose’s therapist). She is seen in flashback scenes, building a tender romance with young Jose (Ivan Jasso). Due to a failure of nerve, Jose loses Dulcinea. Now, as an old man, he believes she has sent him a message, saying she is in danger and needs him to save her. So he sets out to find her in what is, we eventually learn, a quest for the deepest kind of reunion.
This dual journey through an actual landscape and Jose’s mind is enlivened by the colorful and elaborate masks for the ghostly skeletons, known as calacas, that are a frequent presence during the old man’s travels (costume design is by Rachel Anne Healy); by the sudden and dramatic lighting shifts (kudos to designer Brian J. Lilienthal) that intensify the transformation of characters from familiar to menacing; by a mobile set by Takeshi Kata that is equally adept at evoking the landscape of the Texas border town and the friendly confines of the bar; and by music and sound design by David R. Molina that ranges from festive to melancholy to ominous.
The cast handles multiple roles with aplomb. Delivering distinctive portrayals are Sarita Ocón, doubling as Jose’s sister and as a hard-bitten barroom habitue who is moved by the old man’s gentle chivalry; Gianna DiGregorio Rivera as Jose’s niece (among others); and Krystal Hernandez as the big-hearted co-owner (with her husband, played by Jasso) of the bar.
A particular standout, though, is Orlando Arriaga. Among the roles Arriaga shoulders is that of an undocumented immigrant, shattered by grief, whom Quixote and Sancho encounter in a desert canyon. The immigrant had fled with his family from gangs in San Salvador to America but found no safety there. Just before they meet him, Jose turns to Manny and says, in words that amount to a wonderfully lucid credo: "Well, we’re illegals now, Sancho. Smuggling valor, truth, justice, humility, fidelity, and love, all the things that matter . . . Taking it to a place beyond.''
Play by Octavio Solis. Directed by KJ Sanchez. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company in association with Hartford Stage and Alley Theatre. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 8. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.