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One of theater's essentials is an audience -- something Deborah Gwinn, Jim Cave, and Mark Gordon had to do without at the final preview of Don Quixote plus The Gordons, which they generously allowed me to catch at the Marsh. Watching plays under such circumstances is often an eerie experience at best, heightened in this case by the work itself: a silent version of the familiar Cervantes story performed to the piped-in accompaniment of Richard Strauss' Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, followed by The Gordons, a musical nightclub act which might be described as Nichols and May on drugs.
The unifying creative element to both segments is Gwinn, who began her career with the Iowa Theater Lab and moved on with them to Berkeley, where they founded the legendary Blake Street Hawkeyes, home to such theatrical forces of nature as Robert Ernst and John O'Keefe. (Another Blake Street alum: Whoopi Goldberg.) According to program notes, Gwinn left the Bay Area in 1991 to move to Vermont, where she lived "in almost complete seclusion" until moving to England, "where she was in total isolation for the last two years." I'm glad she's back. But I think she could have used some company in the meantime.
Don Quixote, with Gwinn in the title role as the hapless Knight of the Woeful Countenance and Cave as a sweetly devoted Sancho Panza, is a piece that seems fully developed inside its creator's head, but which leaves its audience -- just me and the intrepid staff of the Marsh, in this case -- in the dark. This classic tale of the befuddled knight who sees villainy and danger in the most commonplace of objects -- windmills, for instance, which he took to be giants -- has been relocated from the plains of Spain to an ordinary household. As the title character, Gwinn lounges in bed and reads National Geographic. She can hear the somber, romantic strains of Strauss that we, too, are hearing, but she sees something else: A ghost? An acid flashback? A common housefly? She's off on her silent quest, which is finally (mercifully) ended by the ever patient Sancho, who uses a broom to dispatch what turns out to be a meddlesome fly.
This Don Quixote is full of imaginative sight gags. Her armor, for instance, is hanging on the clothesline. When she tries to put it on, she remains caught until Sancho unclips a clothespin. They go after what are apparently bigger fish than the housefly by donning (no pun intended) yellow sou'westers and eye patches, and paddling through imaginary waters.
A backlit bedsheet hanging on the line creates a screen for shadow figures to appear and engage the Don in battle. Aldonza (I presume), whom you'll remember as Quixote's love interest, also appears (as a shadow), gets pregnant (we're not in on the conception), and delivers a baby. When mother and child step in front of the curtain, we see that it's really the Don and a wadded-up bedsheet. It's all part of the satiric intent to unmask fantasy, but it doesn't pack much of a punch.
My favorite segment is a quirky game of chess in which the Don adds pieces of her own and Sancho makes his moves with an inverted shot glass. (He feels the need for libation from time to time; it's easy to see why.)
Gwinn has structured the piece like a silent movie. This is like a rough cut, however, and is minus little essentials such as titles and snatches of dialogue that might focus the action and keep it moving. I don't remember the original Cervantes well enough to know what the players are doing most of the time. So I'm left to admire their technique as masterful mimes, enjoy the occasional bit, and wonder what in hell is going on.
The Gordons could be coming to us direct from the Headliner's Lounge at the Jim Jarmusch Motel, if there were such a place. Gwinn and her collaborators -- composer/accompanist Gordon (also a former member of the Blake Street Hawkeyes) and someone known only as O'Brien -- have created a lounge act for the truly twisted, a compliment I do not make lightly. The assorted songs (which could include such favorites as "Purple Lips," "Sundays at Kmart," and "Norwegian Cows") performed by Gwinn and Gordon are harmonically adventurous, whimsically satirical, and occasionally flat-out funny. It's hard to say which is more compelling: the performers or the material.
Gordon has presented his oddball flights of musical fancy at the Marsh before. His lyrics, full of puns and plays on ordinary life, sit uncomfortably in the deliberately atonal music, and make you laugh. They are also likely to make you uncomfortable about that laughter, as Gordon delivers all his material in deadpan serious fashion, rarely lifting his eyes from the keyboard. His singing makes me think of Mister Rogers and Tom Waits. In that order.
As the female half of the Gordons, Gwinn could be a descendent of Elaine May by way of Patti Smith, if that were possible. Or maybe she owes her musical identity to Dory Previn, whose lyrical tributes to madness kept me entertained during the '70s. Which is not to say that she's merely derivative. But she has an utterly fascinating stage persona (in both Don Quixote and The Gordons) that makes you think you must have seen her before, that if only you could place the particular movie or show, you'd recognize her. I hope we get to see her again before she heads back into seclusion.
Don Quixote and The Gordons run through Aug. 10.
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