By Brian Robin
The Backstory of “Quixote Nuevo”
The story was personal to Octavio Solis. Deeply personal on a level that could have gone beyond any level Miguel de Cervantes found when he wrote Don Quixote.
As Solis was writing Quixote Nuevo, his modern adaptation of Cervantes’ masterpiece, he couldn’t shake Cervantes’ presence. Even as Solis wrote a play that would go on to critical acclaim across the country, there was the Spanish author, dead for four centuries, hanging over his shoulder like the proverbial devil.
We’ll get to that part of the story. First, Solis knew as he wrote Quixote Nuevo, which runs Sept. 30-Oct. 28 on the Segerstrom Stage, that his hero—Jose Quijano/Quixote—had to have a backstory. And Solis’ personal experiences provided the blueprint for that backstory.
“I have been dealing with a lot of issues with Alzheimer’s. My mother-in-law passed away from it and my mother has it now,” he said. “It made me take a hard look at Quixote and made me realize this guy is not mad. He’s suffering from dementia. He has Alzheimer’s. I think he’s reliving the novel he read and because he’s had almost no life, he’s conflated events of novels he read with his own life. He’s mixed them up.
“Maybe he’s a Cervantes scholar who studied so deeply that when the Alzheimer’s hit, he conflated that with events in his own life. I applied that to my play.”
This illustrates not only how deep Solis went, but how he surpassed Cervantes in the depth of his writing. Cervantes didn’t tell you how Don Quixote came to be the “knight” tilting at windmills. Solis wanted you to not only know Jose Quijano/Quixote in his current, addled state, but know how he got here and what events put him there.
“These real events, this is my way into showing the backstory on who he really is,” Solis said.
Solis’ dedication to absorbing everything he could about Cervantes put the playwright on a quest worthy of his own epic tale. He read two separate translations, which taught him Cervantes did things on a meta level, breaking the wall by interrupting his narrative to comment on what’s happening—all the while, going 17th-century full-snarky about what you’re reading.
“He preps you for what happened by saying how ridiculous it is. It’s marvelous,” Solis said.
And Solis went to Spain, where his wife—reading Don Quixote as they traipsed through the Spanish countryside—played Cervantes tour guide. They went to La Mancha, where they saw the windmills and told inquiring fellow American tourists that no, there is no Don Quixote gravesite “because he’s a fictional character and not real. …” They went to a small village noted for being the home of Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s true love.
“It’s a tourist trap,” Solis dryly said.
Which brings us back to the trap Solis encountered. All his meticulous research boxed him into a writing corner that he couldn’t escape without help. He was too deep in a story that wasn’t his.
“I wrote this massive play that had a lot of adventures. I wrote it as faithfully as I could from the book,” he said. “I did OK. I felt like I could take any Cervantes scholar, put them into the play and they’d say, ‘That’s in the book, that’s in the book.’ But something was missing. I put the play away when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival called me asking me to send them the play. I told them, ‘Not now.’ I was reworking it and I couldn’t figure out what my issue with the play was.”
Eric Ting, then the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater in the Bay Area city of Orinda, could. He wanted to program plays that were contemporary takes on classic works and Solis’ opus was exactly what he was looking for. Solis sent him the play and Ting immediately knew what was wrong.
“He told me, ‘This is not your play. You’re too beholden to Cervantes. You know the story, you know what happens to the character. You need to take the book away from Cervantes and you need to own it. I need to see you in there,’” he said. “I said, ‘OK. I know what you’re talking about. I’m going to go have some fun with it.’
“And I did. I wrote something I’m really proud of. It feels like my play, my character. My Quixote.”
Solis’ Quixote reflected not just one journey, but several. It was the personal journey of an elderly man playing out his last act of what he perceives as heroic defiance. It was also the journey of reconciling grief of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s, the journey of channeling that grief into an artistic purpose that impacts people in a memorable way. And the journey of a playwright who understands his purpose better than he ever has
This is Solis’ fourth play to hit the SCR stage. It comes 33 years after his first one—Man of the Flesh. In this journey, he finds what he’s looking for.
“I feel like I came full circle between Man of the Flesh and now,” Solis said.