When Antonio Ocampo-Guzman was thinking about directing “Man of La Mancha” for New Repertory Theatre, he knew he wanted to reconfigure the musical in a way that would make it meaningful in 2017.
“I wrestled with it, and decided not to make any obvious choices,” Ocampo-Guzman says of his production, which runs from Dec. 1-24. “The story operates on so many different levels, in so many different time periods. The goal is to honor each of those layers, while making sure we are telling the story clearly.”
“Man of La Mancha” was written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, including the show-stopper “Impossible Dream.” The action is set in a prison, where the writer-actor-tax collector Miguel de Cervantes is about to be tried by the Spanish Inquisition for foreclosing on a monastery. Attacked by his fellow prisoners, he defends himself by acting out a story, enlisting the other prisoners to perform various roles. While the novelist and novel “Don Quixote” provide the frame, the musical becomes a celebration of idealism and hope.
The play-within-a-play allows the time periods to shift between the 16th century, when Cervantes was writing; an earlier medieval era when the imaginary Alonso Quijano of the Quixote story goes out on his quest as a knight-errant; the 1960s, when the musical was written and during the military dictatorship of Spain’s Francisco Franco; and 2017, when the artists assembled are creating and audiences are watching this production.
Ocampo-Guzman brought together a unique creative team that includes music director David Reiffel, who is incorporating ukulele, guitars, trumpet, accordion, bass, and a poorly tuned piano, nearly all of which are played by members of the acting ensemble; set designer Eric Levenson, whose father fought in the Spanish Civil War and whose set incorporates elements of ecclesiastical imagery (the prison is in the basement of a church) and theatrical road cases; movement designer Judith Chaffee, who is creating a physical vocabulary to ensure each layer of the storytelling is distinct; and, as the leading actors, international soloist Ute Gfrerer, who is making her Boston debut as Aldonza, and Boston treasure Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Don Quixote.
“I think Antonio’s decision to add so many different ingredients to this show is like adding spice to the gumbo,” says Parent. “Of course, Don Quixote is the central character, but Antonio is building the show around the prisoners, so the focus shifts to the impact this play is having on the prisoners around him.”
He says “Man of La Mancha” resonates with him in ways he didn’t expect.
“We started rehearsals when that horrible shooting happened in the church in Texas,” Parent says, referring to the massacre of 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. “Creative expression is quite powerful. What we do as theater artists, what Quixote is doing with his fellow prisoners, is use theater to find meaning, and the courage to go on.”
Gfrerer, who is originally from Austria, has had an international career in opera and as an interpreter of Kurt Weill’s music for nearly three decades, but went to the StageSource auditions, along with hundreds of others, to get her name out in the Boston community.
“When I heard about this production, I had no doubt in my mind that this role was for me,” Gfrerer says.
“Ute’s experience, like Maurice’s, adds more layers to the production. The more layers, the tastier the dish becomes.”
A personal connection
Director Benny Sato Ambush describes “Hold These Truths” as a “one-man show with a cast of thousands.” To augment actor Michael Hisamoto’s performance, Sato Ambush has enlisted the help of choreographer Jubilith Moore, who has integrated kurogos, traditional stage attendants in the Japanese theater forms of kabuki and noh, into the play.
The Lyric Stage production, which runs from Dec. 1-31, tells the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese-American who argued that his constitutional rights were violated when he was ordered to report to an internment camp during World War II. Despite losing his legal battle, Hirabayashi remained remarkably positive, and in 2012 President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom a few months after his death.
Playwright Jeanne Sakata used interviews with Hirabayashi and his contemporaries as well as historical documents to create a factual and fictional retelling of Hirabayashi’s experiences. While Hisamoto (a standout in the Lyric’s “Stage Kiss” and “Fast Company”) plays all the characters in the 90-minute drama, Moore says incorporating the kurogos helps make the story deeper and clearer.
“Kurogos are neutral assistants,” Moore says. “They present a choreographed stylization of what’s happening and give the actor an opportunity to interact with others on stage, but they are never the focus. They are sometimes visible and sometimes invisible.”
Sato Ambush says adding this element of traditional Japanese theater provides an artistic balance.
“This play is very much of the moment we are in right now as a nation,” says the director, whose maternal grandfather emigrated to the United States from Japan early in the 20th century. “Xenophobia, nativism, and various immigration bans are not new to this country. They raise their ugly heads cyclically. I hope that by adding this very theatrical element we are creating more depth and complexity for our audiences.”
Sato Ambush’s maternal grandmother, Grace Virginia Woods, a black woman who lived with her husband Takayuki Yaokawa Sato and their five daughters in Cambridge, lost her right to vote during World War II, even though her Japanese husband had died in 1939. Her job at the time was registering citizens to vote at Cambridge City Hall.
Sato Ambush says he started with the conceptual frame everyone on the production team contributed to, one that was deepened by his own personal experience as well as that of actor Hisamoto, who was born in Japan and raised in Singapore.
“The theater is a gymnasium for human beings to practice empathy,” says Sato Ambush. “Through empathy you form bridges. That’s what theater does.”
MAN OF LA MANCHA
Presented by New Repertory Theatre, Watertown, Dec. 1-24. Tickets $22-$72, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
HOLD THESE TRUTHS
Presented by Lyric Stage Company, Boston, Dec. 1-31. Tickets $35-$73, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com