Burning Coal Theatre Company of Raleigh opened its very casual, modern interpretation of the 1965 musical of Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion, and Dale Wasserman, Man of La Mancha, adapted from Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth century novel Don Quixote. This classic tale of chivalry and knights in shining armor is slightly skewed with an element of madness in protagonist Alonso Quixana, a retired gentleman of La Mancha, who believes himself to be a knight named Don Quixote. The adaptation for the stage is presented as a play within a play, in which the author Miguel de Cervantes performs the tale of Don Quixote for his fellow prisoners as he awaits interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition from a prison cell.

In an address in the program for Burning Coal’s Man of La Mancha, artistic director Jerome Davis immediately equates Don Quixote with the modern day middle class. Audiences are challenged by reflections of themselves in the characters on stage to remember and believe in the accomplishments, like the airplane and advancements of modern medicine, which resulted from the actions of quixotic idealists. Director Tea Alagic strengthened the relationship between the characters and the audience with a very personal approach from the actors. Jordan Jaked’s costume design gave the characters a contemporary look, as though they had just walked in from outside. The absence of a structured design allowed audience members to see themselves in any role on stage. Further supported by Andrew Boyce’s scenic design – a few chairs at the back of a bare stage – the show’s accessibility connected it to the audience on a personal level.

Don Quixote and Aldonza, played by Randolph Curtis Rand and Yolanda Rabun conveyed two very different sentiments toward a calling to be something more. Rand’s wit and attention to detail as Don Quixote embodied the optimistic everyman who seeks an opportunity to find and create beauty in the world. Rand supplied energy whenever he was called on for energy and stillness when he was called on for stillness, delivering the truth of the text at every beat. Rabun gave a gritty voice to the lower class with her ferocious approach to Aldonza. The “in your face” attitude gave the appropriate voice of doubt to the skeptics among us when we can’t all be optimists.

From real instruments in the pit to real emotion between the players, Burning Coal not only gave an honest performance of a timeless story but also made it accessible and relatable to their appreciative audience. Indeed, the large Thursday night crowd gave a standing ovation to the moving conclusion of Man of La Mancha.

Burning Coal’s production continues through February 19th. For details, see the sidebar.