Forget about the cultural palaces. Santa Susana Repertory Company, a new professional theater in Simi Valley, is doing "Man of La Mancha" in a tent--and doing it so well that you almost become convinced that "La Mancha" should always be done in a tent.
This tent is on a parking lot of what used to be a supermarket. The company planned to use the ex-market for its show, until a city building inspector ruled otherwise. So up went a 230-seat tent instead.
Two analogies to elements within "Man of La Mancha" can be drawn from the experiences of the theater company itself.
First, and most obviously, the Santa Susana Rep is dreaming its own "impossible dream," carrying on against the odds as Don Quixote did. The show must go on, and it does.
This sort of sentiment wouldn't count for much if the show weren't very good. But this is one show that deserves to go on.
More intriguing, the presentation of "Man of La Mancha" under these circumstances begins to approximate what's happening inside the musical itself.
In "La Mancha," Don Miguel de Cervantes is cast into prison by the Spanish inquisitors. While awaiting his fate, he is subjected to a mock trial staged by his hardened fellow convicts. He defends himself by enlisting the entire prison population in an impromptu staging of the story of Don Quixote, the gallant dreamer who tilted at windmills. Even the most skeptical prisoner is drafted into the production.
At first glance, the tent in Simi Valley doesn't seem much more hospitable to this kind of theatrical legerdemain than a prison in Spain would be. Yet in both cases, the audience is soon caught up in the story, despite the absence of special effects or lavish props. The theatrical impulse casts its spell.
In the Dale Wasserman script, the spell is broken only by intrusions from the jail keepers as they raise and lower a clanking gate that might, at any moment, herald the impending doom of one of the prisoners.
Simi Valley offers its own, more prosaic intrusions. The worst is the jangly sound of the electronic keyboard that plays Mitch Leigh's music. When it isn't supplemented by the fine voices of the Simi cast, singing Joe Darion's lyrics, the keyboard noise severely damages the illusion that we're in 17th Century Spain.
Other minor intrusions are the noises from the street that can sometimes be heard through the tent walls. Last Sunday, for example, a car with an especially loud radio went by just after Don Quixote expired, while the priest sang a farewell psalm.
But David Ralphe's actors are superb at ignoring such distractions--and in just about every other way, too.
Lane Davies plays Cervantes with courtly cool and Quixote with courtly passion, registering the difference between the two characters with subtle gestures that can be appreciated from anywhere inside the tent. His voice is everything it ought to be.
Eileen Barnett's features are almost too glamorously aristocratic for Aldonza/Dulcinea, but she plunges into the grime with no holds barred, and her voice is strong and flavorful.
Jerry Winsett's Sancho Panza is a staunchly loyal retainer who knows he's there primarily to help Cervantes/Quixote, not to get laughs. Vince Acosta's padre has a voice and a sympathetic smile that could draw lapsed Catholics back to the church.
Matt Ventimiglia's set is not so rudimentary as to ignore that famous clanking gate. Lighting designer Dennis Evans had a more difficult challenge, as it's hard to eradicate the daylight that creeps in at the beginning of the show (especially at the 7 p.m. Sunday performance). But before and after the show, the natural lighting design of the area--the sunset on the Simi Hills and then the moon over the mountains--contributes to the magic of "La Mancha."
At 5135 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., through July 2. Tickets: $15; (805) 582-9000.