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— In Cervantes's great novel, Don Quixote, the don interrupts Master Pedro's Moorish puppet show. "You've put church bells in mosques", the offended Don exclaims. Pedro, the puppeteer, replies, "Don't be looking for trifles, Señor Quixote, or expect things to be impossibly perfect. Are not a thousand comedies performed almost every day that are full of inaccuracies and absurdities, yet they run their course and are received not only with applause but with admiration and all the rest?"

Don Pedro's reply is probably the best approach to the San Diego Rep's world premiere of Don Quixote. The nearly three-hour production is wildly uneven, often tedious, silly, tonally confused, and thesis-heavy. It rambles as if it's been cut down but needs much more. At the same time, however, it has gems.

Such as the puppet show, performed by an eggplant, an onion, an orange (for the sun), a banana (for a crescent moon), various and sundry other produce -- and Quixote's genocidal reaction. A hater of Moors, he confuses the puppets for actual people, draws his sword, and slashes at them. As he does, the puppets become larger than life, including a giant he beheads. At once -- and unlike the novel, which glosses over things painful -- we see the scope of the don's illusions and the human costs of his religious fanaticism.

Paul Magid, of the legendary Flying Karamazov Brothers, wrote the script. Those expecting a doddering, romanticized Man of La Mancha dreaming impossible dreams, be forewarned: when this Alonso Quijano becomes an imaginary knight-errant, he's a danger to the world. As if trying to free his version from the musical, and comment on current affairs, Magid makes the don less sympathetic (instead of tilting with windmills, you sense this Quixote'd much rather invade Iraq). But in the book, and like Hamlet, Quixote's only mad north-by-northwest. When he isn't obsessed with his chivalric ideal, he's just your normal 50-year-old gentleman, who eats lentils on Friday and a "pigeon extraordinary" on Sunday. Okay, he's also a virgin and reads too many pulp romances "with application and delight." And there's the rub.

Magid's emphasis makes Quixote too one-note. And even an actor of Peter Van Norden's considerable talents can't move the don beyond mere infantile xenophobia: brandishing his sword, plunging onward, and making a mess of things -- especially if the latter are Muslims, Jews, or Spanish conversos. He isn't noble. He's just nuts.

Cervantes -- who, legend has it, died the same day as Shakespeare (April 23, 1616) -- wrote Don Quixote in two parts: the first published in 1605; the second in 1615 and written, many claim, because the book had spawned so many imitators he had to kill off the don. When Quixote goes at the end of the play, sympathy gets mixed with relief that he can do no more harm.

Magid plays the narrator, Cidi Hamete Benegeli. In contrast to Quixote's fanaticism, he advocates tolerance and acceptance of differences. Magid's moral earnestness is the most moving element of the show. He often enters the story, either to jack it up or inject more commentary. In doing so, however, he shoves Sancho Panza, and even Quixote, off to the side (as the don's sidekick, Willie G gets to do a knockout rap number, but, other than ride a tricycle, that's about it). The intrusive narrator, reduced versions of Quixote and Sancho, make for a sameness in most scenes: déjà boondoggle.

Don Quixote needs major cutting and tightening. The best parts are the interludes: as when the four Karamazovs juggle (and are funniest when they drop a bowling pin), or when a Catholic priest baptizes the audience, or when the group breaks into song. But the play's the thing, and this one's still a work in progress.

* * *

Legends, a star vehicle for Joan Collins and Linda Evans, came and went last week. The "vehicle" turned out to be a train wreck. The "stars" posed and modeled high fashions but were consistently upstaged by better performances.

James Kirkwood's formulaic script pits feuding movie headliners against each other. They're an odd couple: Leatrice (Evans) only plays saints; Leatrice (Collins), sinners. A young producer wants them for Star Wars: The Play, in which sparks allegedly fly. When the two women meet to talk about the project, the biggest ones fly offstage.

After an endless, only intermittently funny first act, which includes racist stereotyping and a shameless Chippendales strip, Collins and Evans finally square off. Here's the money scene. But their exchanges lack heat and get delivered in a shoulders-squared, I-speak-now-you-speak patter. Neither is in the moment. Each pseudo-argues, as in an early rehearsal, or as if they've done the lines so many times they're just routine. When it's time for the battle royale, they take it offstage, onto a balcony, and we hear rather than see the clash.

In effect, the staging masks the headliners. It demands little more from them than recreating their roles on Dynasty (of which members of the audience reminded each other, often, on opening night). Minor characters actually carry the show: Tonye Patano as a maid (of whose exit lines provide most of the humor) and Will Holman as the male

stripper. Both are African- Americans in subservient roles. And when Collins's character tells the maid to "go pick cotton" in the kitchen, Legends scrapes the gutter of American theater.

Critic's pick.

Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area, through February 11; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.Don Quixote, adapted from the Cervantes novel by Paul Magid

San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Peter Van Norden, Paul Magid, Willie G, Michael Preston, Jasper Patterson, Jennifer Miller, Suzy Hernandez Peredo, Gregg Moore, Fred Lanuza; scenic design, Noch Fouch; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Jennifer Setlow; sound, M. Scott Grabau; choreographer, Javier Velasco; composer and musical director, Gregg Moore; fight director, Stephen Morgan-MacKay

Playing through February 4; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

Legends by James Kirkwood

Broadway*San Diego, Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street, downtown

Directed by John Bowab; cast: Joan Collins, Linda Evans, Joe Farrell, Will Holman, Ethan Matthews, Tonye Patano; scenic design, Jesse Poleshuck; lighting, Paul Monat; costumes, Nolan Miller; sound, T. Richard Fitzgerald, Carl Casella

Run concluded.

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