By Brian Robin
Clowning Around with Ernie González Jr.
There is a scene in Act II of Quixote Nuevo where Ernie González Jr. once again embodies the nickname one reviewer called him—“scene stealer.” His Sancho Panza/Manny, the trusty sidekick to Herbert Siguenza’s Jose Quijano/Quixote, is about to reunite with his wife Juana, (Alexis B. Santiago), who has been wandering the canyons of South Texas looking for him.
González is mid-soliloquy, explaining how everything to Quixote is real, when he turns and sees the disheveled, cranky Juana staring daggers at him.
There’s a pause, because González is a master of timing and owning the moment. Then, not losing his blank stare, González utters the line, “This, however, is a mirage. What’s your name, mirage?”
Laughter fills the Segerstrom Stage every time. And once again, González has made off with another scene.
González was born for such moments. He grew up in what he called “the projects of El Paso.” Channeling his poverty into making people laugh became a way to not only make friends, but make life tolerable. He’d often invite friends to his apartment, where he performed impromptu shows and skits. His first middle-school production was in the play Sunday Costs Five Pesos. His scene consisted of running up to a well and screaming his “girlfriend’s” name down the well. González’s rhythm and cadence yelling “BERTHA, BERTHA” brought laughs from the audience every time.
He was hooked. Making people laugh gave González the escape he needed.
“My early childhood wasn’t easy. Comedy became a source of survival and a coping mechanism,” he said. “I come from a long line of funny people and they’re funny because of that.”
The laughs took González to Texas State, then Kent State for an MFA, then two of the country’s iconic improv troupes—The Groundlings in L.A. and Second City in Chicago. In between various improv shows, he began to playing Shakespearean clowns at Ohio Shakespeare Festival and Milwaukee Rep.
Eventually, it led to Sancho Panza/Manny, a role González longed for after the moment he read for it at Round House Theater in Maryland.
“I had been telling people this is a dream role I didn’t know was a dream role before I got it,” he said. “…I mostly play comedic roles and the comedy here is a bit natural. It’s set in my culture, set in my voice, set in my home state. I feel like I didn’t know this show existed before I auditioned for it three years ago, but I had to do it. I did a deep dive into the show and was kind of obsessed a little.
“When I auditioned, I didn’t hear anything for a week, then two. After the week mark, it was like ‘OK, as an actor, you audition three, four, five times a week and rejection is part of the job.’ You try not to want things, because it hurts badly when you don’t get it. It took two weeks to find out from the theatre I got the part.”
When you see González in the role, you wonder why it took so long for Round House Theatre to respond. He plays Quixote’s loyal sidekick with the verbal and physical comedic genius of Lou Costello, mixing timely laughs, vocal cadence, adroit facial expressions and genuine empathy into a rich, deeper-than-he-seems character who is as much a necessity to the story as Quixote himself. González smiled at the comparison to Costello.
Writing in the Orange County Register, C.P. Smith notes that González “has the plaintive persona of the fool—often slyly the wisest man in the room—totally down.” It was Michael Quintos’ review in Broadway World that called him a “scene stealer.”
Originally, González said he had trouble getting his arms around Octavio Solis’ script because he couldn’t figure out how to navigate the “jump-shifts,” where his character does one thing one moment, then does a complete 180-degree character shift the next. When he realized Sancho Panza/Manny is a clown, everything made sense.
“I approach the role with my clowning background and clowning is about celebrating failure in public,” he said. “You have to fail as a clown. You celebrate it and share it.
“I’m the support system for Don Quixote. What’s wonderful about this part is the role I play is a character that is layered and complex. There is Manny the clown, but by the end of the show, he’s all-in. He’s the only person who believes and wants to continue the journey with Don Quixote. It’s an honor, privilege and blessing to get to the chance to do both—play the clown and do a role that features pathos.”
Laugh along with González during the final week of Quixote Nuevo, playing through Oct. 28.