Monday, October 5, 2015

Review: The Return of Don Quixote

OK, we already know, he dreamed the impossible dream. What else can you tell us? Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews at People's Light & Theatre Company, in Malvern.

Review: The Return of Don Quixote

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From left, Chris Faith as Sancho Panza, Graham Smith as Don Quixote and Melanye Finister as his love, Dulcinea, in Kira Obolensky’s "The Return of Don Quixote" at People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern. Photo by Mark Garvin.

By Howard Shapiro

If there’s one thing we all know about Don Quixote, it’s this: He dreamed the impossible dream. Sure, he was crazy and  fictional, but that's what he did, he reached for ideals no one could ever grasp.

Man of La Mancha, the musical adapatation of his adventures, laid this out in a song that has become a solid piece of the American musical theater canon. I thought the play The Return of Don Quixote, which opened at People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern over the weekend, might give us something different, some curve-ball insight.

But despite a capable attempt by People’s Light, with strong characterizations by Graham Smith as Quixote and Chris Faith as his sidekick Sancho Panza, all The Return of Don Quixote can manage is greeting-card repetition: He had an impossible dream, he taught us to dream, the play tells us. Repeatedly.

Enough already! Kira Obolensky’s belabored play starts off with a great premise, but unfolds with disappointing creases. We begin at the old man’s home, where he’s cloistered in subdued retirement and using only his real name, which Cervantes gave him (along with the name Don Quixote) in two 17th-century novels.

Sancho finds Quixote and urges him to return to his adventurous (and mad) days of yore, because Quixote has never fulfilled a promise to give Sancho an island. He also gives Quixote a copy of the popular first novel about him; the novel’s graphic accounts make the old man both wistful and enraged. It’s back to the windmills.

So we can expect some action here — and eventually, we  get nice swordplay (the fight director is Samantha Bellomo), along with a healthy dose of  freely adapted scenes from Cervantes’ books. These  begin to lag in the middle of the first half, then pick up after intermission,  in an asylum where many patients claim to be Don Quixote.

From then on, the play is like a piece of music that promises to end but can’t bring itself to do so. The impossible dream here is finding a way to make this something more than flat — director Ken Marini tries, as does the A-list cast that includes Alda Cortese, Melanye Finister, Peter DeLaurier, Stephen Novelli and Luigi Sottile.

Their attempt is at times impressive and so is some of the stagecraft, particularly Robert Kaplowitz’ sound design and Marla J. Jurglanis’ elite-life Spanish costumes.

It’s great that Cervantes — whose Quixote novels were meant as a repudiation of what he considered junky romances  — has inspired much literature built on idealism and good-hearted dreamers. And even though a character in the play declaims, about the real and the imagined: “Fiction is better! It always is!” ... well ... not always.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.


The Return of Don Quixote: Presented by People’s Light & Theatre Company on its main stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, through Oct. 16. Tickets: $25-$45. Information: 610-644-3500 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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