John Cleese in Don Quixote, with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
At the Lobero Theatre, Wednesday, March 25
As artistically transcendent as they can be, classical guitar concerts aren’t, as a rule, particularly concept-heavy. Outliers might be dedicated to one composer, or perhaps to a unifying theme. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s (LAGQ) Wednesday night performance at the Lobero, then, was an outlier among outliers, with not only a theme, but a story. That story wasn’t any old folktale either: It was The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote, the gem in the Spanish literary crown; the picaresque owed a debt by all subsequent picaresques. And the storyteller? None other than ex-Python, current Santa Barbara resident, and a man famous for turning up in productions one wouldn’t quite expect him to: John Cleese.
As sure-fire as the production’s mix of more than 30 pieces expertly performed by the LAGQ, a classic comic tale of misdirected virtuousness, and Cleese doing Sancho Panza’s voice might sound, serious pitfalls lie in such an ambitious effort. While adapting a sprawling two-part novel to the less conventional Cleese-backed-by-guitars format is a tall order in itself, compressing it to a brisk 65 minutes seems truly unenviable. Quartet member William Kanengiser has, in the event, crafted an adaptation that efficiently conveys the essence of the delusional knight-errant’s grand journey, while at the same time allowing Cleese the flexibility to deliver it in ways only he can. Quixote purists could no doubt find omissions about which to quibble-a 940-page novel can only be condensed so faithfully-but the product, in its probable capacity to spark viewer interest in the original book, undoubtedly did more good than harm.
Additionally, finding just the right score to illuminate Cleese’s performance of Cervantes’ translated words couldn’t have been a trivial task. The LAGQ stuck to music Cervantes could have heard in his lifetime, a creative choice that produced a selection featuring pieces even classical guitar aficionados might not have heard before. They were subtle enough to accentuate the story’s action without suffering from the over-expressionistic redundancy to which film scores often fall. But these qualities were mere subtleties compared to the performance’s coup de gr•ce. Upon finishing the chapter in which Don Quixote’s dies, Cleese exited the stage, leaving the Quartet to deliver its musical coda. He then returned to deliver a coda of his own, dressed in full Quixote costume, armor and all, drawing a scatter of allegedly forbidden flash photography. “I live in a novel state,” Cleese boomed, in character. “I die unceasingly, but I live forever!”