What Happens to a Play When the Lead Actor Gets Replaced Midway?

Gesher Theater's terrific production of 'I Am Don Quixote' sees two different actors playing the lead role on alternate evenings – and both are well worth seeking out.

Gina Levitas

Perhaps the final scene in Gesher Theater’s “I Am Don Quixote” is the most splendid (although obviously I can’t go into details). Here it becomes abundantly clear that Don Quixote’s power doesn’t reside in what he really is (to the degree that anyone can answer that unequivocally), but in what he represents in the imaginations of those who read his story. Maybe he’s mad; possibly he’s a dreamer who succeeded in giving meaning to an “impossible dream.” (Jacques Brel’s voice, from the French version of the musical “Man of La Mancha,” is heard on the show’s brilliant soundtrack.) But he himself is not the issue: it’s what he symbolizes for the people who read and experience his story.

Roee Chen’s play about the myth of Don Quixote (and it’s time to acknowledge Chen’s immense contribution to the work of Gesher Theater in recent years) is set in two locales: firstly, a prison; and, in the second part, a hospital for the mentally ill. These are both institutions that imprison the human body, and here both places liberate the human spirit through the character of the “knight of the woeful countenance” who never tires of tilting at windmills or of dreaming about his Dulcinea.

Yevgeny Arye, Gesher’s artistic director and director of this production, demonstrates his theatrical wizardry once again. His partners are set designer Simon Pastukh, who has fashioned a space encircled by rusty walls that can be the site of any occurrence that Don Quixote fantasizes in his mind; costume designer Stephanie Graurogkayte, whose flock of sheep will live long in my memory; along with composer Avi Benjamin and lighting designer Igor Kapustin.

Extraordinary charm

Not for the first time at the Gesher Theater, I found myself forgoing my role as analytical viewer and surrendering to the sheer spectacle. The scenes in which Don Quixote’s madness manifest themselves on stage – the sheep, the brothel, the slave ship – were truly magical.

But if Don Quixote’s character is secondary, since he is only a receptacle for our dreams, the actor who plays the person devoting himself to the secular religion of this windmill-fighting knight is the centerpiece of the theatrical experience. True, the characters around him are also important, particularly his sidekick (to use the modern term) Sancho Panza – played with extraordinary charm by Alexander Senderovich. A large cast surrounds him and his stage master, among whom special mention goes to Natasha Manor, who for an instant succeeds in showing us the distress – not the nonexistence – of Dulcinea.

There are actually two Don Quixotes in this production. On the first evening I attended, I saw Doron Tavori as the prisoner who dedicates himself to a book and the madman who refuses to give up his dream of freedom. There’s something about Tavori’s restraint and the preciseness of his work, with its uncompromising use of voice and body, that leaves the viewer in thrall to him. You don’t love him or pity him, only surrender to the throbbing pain that pulsates from him.

It’s usually unfair for a critic to see the same play twice, almost day after day, with the only difference being the lead actor. But what’s unique here is that it’s unfair in equal measure to both the two actors and the entire production.

Tavori, whom I saw first, set the standard for the comparison: I was left with no choice but to compare Sasha Demidov’s presence in the lead role with that created by Tavori. Contrariwise, I couldn’t give Tavori my full attention when I saw his performance: he was surrounded by a busy, interesting play, which I was seeing for the first time, and a delightful, spectacular production that also demanded attention. The second time, I was able to focus particularly on Demidov’s performance.

Perhaps the distinctive message of Chen’s play and Arye’s production is that Dulcinea, the dream lover, and Sancho Panza, the faithful servant, are less dependent on Don Quixote than he is on them.

On second viewing, I was able to appreciate more what Don Quixote does to Dulcinea (thanks to the excellent performance by Manor, who plays nurse, madam and warder) and Sancho Panza (a second viewing also left me more appreciative of Senderovich’s contribution, which exudes vitality). I was also able to take greater note of the quality of the performances of Yuval Yanai (prison guard, doctor) and Karin Serrouya (prisoner’s wife). Not to mention the terrific sound design – always superb at Gesher – by Michael Vaisburd.

The difference between the two Dons – Demidov and Tavori – is so great that it turns “I Am Don Quixote” into two different plays, and to prefer one to the other is largely a matter of taste.

Tavori, as I noted, is restrained. He is also concentrated, focused, serious and tough. It’s as though there’s a stable core within him, and his pursuit of the unattainable is driven by him knowing the truth. In short, Tavori’s Don Quixote knows exactly what he’s doing.

Demidov, in contrast, is soft, warm and flowing. At any given moment, he seems to be a little puzzled about what’s happening to him. My impression is that he lowered his voice slightly for this role (or maybe he’s just hoarse). In any case, my clear sense as a viewer is that he finds the hallucinations far more amusing and enjoyable, and that he’s somehow more generous in his approach to his surroundings – even though it’s the same staging, the same text and the same high points. And yes, even though he utters the same pearls of wisdom – about the ways of contempt, arrogance, ignorance and truth (which is ostensibly his way) – he is totally unsure that this is the truth.

It seemed to me that Tavori in the role of Quixote, who leaves the last scene and observes it from above, laughs aloud at those who are reading his book and longing for the dream he wove for them. Demidov, meanwhile, makes do with a bemused gaze, as though it no longer has anything to do with him – and maybe never did.

So, two “I”s, two Don Quixotes and one production – which I definitely recommend seeing twice. Even if only for the novelty of the experience, plus the high quality of the script, production and two very different leads.

The next performances of “I Am Don Quixote” are on October 8-11 at Gesher Theater, 9 Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa.