Arts & Culture

Harlequin believes its unique performance of ‘Man of La Mancha’ needs no translation

Galloway Stevens as Don Quixote and Monique Holt* as Aldonza in Harlequin Productions’ ‘Man of La Mancha,’ opening this weekend at the State Theater.
Galloway Stevens as Don Quixote and Monique Holt* as Aldonza in Harlequin Productions’ ‘Man of La Mancha,’ opening this weekend at the State Theater. Courtesy of Harlequin Productions

Silence makes a statement in Harlequin Productions’ “Man of La Mancha.”

The Tony-winning musical about the wacky would-be knight Don Quixote features deaf theater artist Monique Holt as Aldonza, the serving wench and prostitute whom Quixote mistakes for his love, Dulcinea.

Holt of Seattle will communicate with other characters in Visual Gestural Communication, a form of sign language that’s based on the way humans naturally gesture, so the audience will grasp much of her meaning without hearing the words.

“We’re not translating Aldonza for you,” director Aaron Lamb wrote in the director’s notes. “We’re bringing you into her reality (as far as we can).”

Lamb, who also is Harlequin’s artistic director, is known for his original takes on theatrical classics. With “La Mancha,” based on Miguel Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” the director aims to add new layers to the familiar tale by asking audiences to listen with their eyes.

Wordless communication is something we all do, Holt told The Olympian.

She’s clearly a master of it, using graceful gestures, animated facial expressions and lip movements to communicate. For clarity, though, she chose the written word for her Olympian interview, sitting side by side with the reporter, reading questions on the reporter’s laptop and typing answers on her own — an in-person version of texting augmented, on both sides, by facial expressions and gestures.

“Many hearing people don’t realize they do use their hands to communicate,” she said, gesturing to show size. “For example, they might indicate the size of a drink or (other) things. I call it a universal gesture.”

Lamb’s choice to leave most of Aldonza’s dialogue untranslated is an unconventional one, said Holt, an equity actor who’s also serving as the production’s director of Artistic Sign Language.

“Aaron is a risk-taker,” she said. “Most directors would prefer to assign a hearing actor to voice a deaf actor’s dialogue, but my Aldonza lines won’t be vocalized at all.”

When the production calls for Aldonza to sing, Holt will sign-sing in American Sign Language while Cassi Q. Kohl of Seattle sings in English, standing in front of and to the side of the stage.

“My role is the interpreter role,” Kohl of Seattle told The Olympian. Kohl is also playing the innkeeper’s wife.

“The song functions as a mediator between the characters and the audience,” Holt wrote in a program note, adding that the translation gives both hearing and deaf audience members “an opportunity to get in Aldonza’s mind.”

“I want the story to touch people,” she said, “and we need to find ways to make it happen, no matter what language.”

Holt recently moved to Seattle, where she’s working as Deaf Spotlight’s Director of Theatre Programs, after four seasons as an actor and sign coach at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

Lamb saw her there in last year’s “Snow in Midsummer.” (If the play’s title sounds familiar, it’s likely because the modern take on a traditional Chinese ghost story will be part of Harlequin’s 2020 season.)

“I was impressed with both the play and her performance,” Lamb told The Olympian. “I particularly loved the way the sign language … took on a life of its own. Many of the signs were large, beautiful, almost like dance. The presence of this communication form almost became another character in the play.”

‘Man of La Mancha’

  • What: Harlequin Productions’ “Man of La Mancha” is an original take on Dale Wasserman’s 1966 musical about Don Quixote and Miguel Cervantes, the writer who created the character.
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday plus June 26-29 and July 5-6, 11-13, 18-20 and 25-27; 2 p.m. Sunday plus June 30 and July 7, 14 and 21; and 3 p.m. July 13, 20 and 27
  • Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
  • Tickets: $42 general admission, $38 for seniors and military, $25 for students and youth; for the June 26 performance, pay what you can
  • More information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org
  • See star Monique Holt in action: Watch Holt tell a story without saying a word in a 2011 video of a performance at The Kennedy Center at kennedy-center.org/video/index/M45666.
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