South Coast Repertory’s bold, imaginative 60th season opener, Octavio Solis’ “Quixote Nuevo” (continuing through Oct. 28), is as far from “Man of La Mancha” as one can get. Indeed, it is only loosely adapted from Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tale of the chivalrous dreamer who tilted at windmills. Solis’ hero, Quijano, is a retired professor of literature who once lectured on Cervantes—or so he tells us—who brandishes a flea market sword and wears a hubcap for a shield, while mounted on a three-wheeled bicycle with a horse’s skull.

Sancho is a dimwitted popsicle vendor. Dulcinea is a former colleague of Quijano’s who tells him she’s an apparition. And Death, personified by a sinister-looking pachuco named Papa Calaca, is keeping an eye on the old man. The professor’s mental faculties are in question (his sister is trying to put him in an assisted living facility) but as he looks back over his life, he’s still got enough grey matter left to appreciate Dulcy’s old love letters as “the most beautiful words ever written.”    

Set in present day La Plancha, Texas, a fictional town on the US-Mexican border, this surreal, multi-layered play has a satiric edge sharper than the protagonist’s sword and is barbed with jokes about immigration, border patrol, and the infamous wall an American president promised to build. The production is overlong and comes to an abrupt end but it’s a wildly entertaining ride, peopled with fantastic characters in spectacular costumes, and won’t be forgotten any time soon.

Herbert Siguenza (best known as one-third of the performance group, Culture Clash) is perfection as Quijano/Quixote. Ernie Gonzalez Jr. (Sancho), Maya Mayan-Gonzalez (Dulcinea), Raul Cardona (Calaca) and others provide excellent support. Lisa Portes’ flawless direction is enhanced by Helen Q. Huang’s vivid costumes and David R. Molina’s original music and sound design.

Simon Stephen’s extraordinary “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills (through Oct. 22), is closely based on the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon. This eye-opening story “is not about autism,” explains director Darryl B. Hovis, though Christopher, the protagonist, is a highly-functioning autistic young man and how he navigates the world around him is very much “the medium that propels the story.” 

I saw the play years ago at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where it seemed to get lost. The intimacy of the Chance is exactly what it needed, and the show really comes alive in their comparatively small space; if anything, this production exemplifies what makes live theatre so special, and why it hasn’t lost its magic—unlike the cinema, held hostage by gazillion-dollar budgets and all but obliterated by special effects.

“Curious” is set largely in Swindon, England, a town situated west of London. Christopher becomes obsessed with the senseless killing of a neighbor’s dog, and his quest to find the culprit becomes our obsession. Best of all, he challenges us to think and rethink the seemingly obvious and take nothing for granted.

Hovis’ direction and sound design, Andrea Heiman’s lighting and Nick Santiago’s projection design are simply superb, but it’s the performances that truly supply the pizzazz. Aaron Lipp, a Chapman University student, is mesmerizing as Christopher. He’s backed by a first-rate supporting cast, notably Karen O’Hanlon (as his mother), Rachel McLaughlan and Holly Jean (various characters), and Casey Long (his father), Chance’s managing director, who is almost unrecognizable in his role.

Casey Long and Aaron Lipp in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” at Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center. Photo by Doug Catiller.

Author: Jordan Young