By Brian Robin
The Gift of Directing “Quixote Nuevo”
There are nine actors, seven of whom play multiple roles. Intricate choreography. Puppets. Tejano music. Fight choreography. A dialects coach. A mountainous set. Plenty of moving parts.
And Lisa Portes couldn’t be happier being at the center, calling the shots.
“It’s my favorite type of play to do,” said the director of Quixote Nuevo, Octavio Solis’ clever modern adaptation of Don Quixote. “Working with nine really talented actors and a posse of visionary designers. There’s a lot of folks working on this show and that’s my favorite type of show to create. I love the process, the collaboration with other talented artists and I love a big ship.
“I love to figure out together how to tell this large-scale, highly theatrical epic tale of Jose Quijano, who believes he’s Don Quixote. For me, this is what I aspire to—working at this scale with that many talented folks.”
This is exactly what you’d expect from a director who cut her directorial teeth as the associate director for TheWho’s Tommy, a complex, multi-faceted musical based on the iconic album. It enjoyed a 26-month, 899-performance run on Broadway from 1993-1995, where it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards. It won five, including Best Director for Portes’ mentor—Des McAnuff.
“That piece kind of inspired a love for working at scale,” she said. “For me to do live music, puppets, guitars and the level of comedy mixed with the heart of this piece, that combination is a delight. It’s what I aspire to. It’s an exciting combo of theatrical elements to tell an epic story like Quixote Nuevo on scale.”
For Portes, who directed SCR’s award-winning production of Clean/Espejos by Christine Quintana in 2022 and was a presence at the Hispanic Playwrights Festival from 1997 to 2003, this isn’t her first journey with Solis’ work. She directed the productions at Round House Theatre outside Washington, D.C. and at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, both featuring Herbert Siguenza as Jose Quijano/Quixote, along with several other cast members. So even at this complex scale, this third time should be charmingly easier, right?
“I don’t think it gets easier. I think it gets deeper,” Portes said. “I’ve never had the opportunity to direct the same text more than once until now. The first time you go through a piece this dense, this deep, you’re kind of guessing, slicing the surface of it. In Denver, with new designers and a predominantly new cast, you learn other things. You deepen the world. That’s when we were able to play at the scale we wanted to play. That deepens our storytelling.
“By the time we were producing this version at South Coast Repertory, we knew how to do it in terms of staging and what it’s meant to be. Then, it’s just deepening the storytelling further and understanding the layers of this work in a more profound way. As we’ve moved West, we’ve been able to get a cast with more predominantly Chicano and Mexican actors. Here at SCR, all of our cast are Chicano or Mexican artists and that makes a difference in terms of understanding the language, the rhythm of the language and the texture of the language. I’m of Cuban descent and I’m surrounding myself with Chicano artists who are carrying Octavio’s story the way it’s mean to be carried. … We’ve just deepened our work like a fine, fine wine. We’ve deepened our work to meet Octavio’s depth.”
Portes’ artful direction of Solis’ work is seamless, lively and entertaining. It’s like she was not only born to direct intricate works with moving parts aplenty, but born to work with Solis and Siguenza. Of the latter, she said “it was one of the great treats of my lifetime to work with him.”
Writing in the Orange County Register, C.P. Smith wrote that “… Solis’ (work) is vividly and coherently brought to life by director Lisa Portes and an effective nine-member cast mostly taking on dual roles.”
In Culture OC, Eric Marchese described Quixote Nuevo as “salty and earthy, and with uproarious humor and gritty poignance, this ‘new Quixote’ is a vision of Cervantes’ epic novel like no other you’ve ever seen.”
And this is just the West Coast beginning of Portes sharing that her directing vision with audiences. She is on board for all three co-productions of Quixote Nuevo. From SCR, the play migrates north to Seattle Rep and from there, it goes to Portland Center Stage next spring.
“For me, South Coast Repertory is really where the crucible that created me as an artist began. It’s a homecoming for me,” she said. “I feel very comfortable here.”