BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Don Juan by Elyse Sommer
Jennings is once again an aristocrat, but, oh what a difference between the noble and independent Henry Trebell and this Don Juan. Though Sher's inventiveness here is less of a triumph than Cymbeline or Waste, Mr. Jenning has bought into the concept of Don Juan as a rather nasty super fop with enough magnetism for a theatrical if muddled two and a half hours.
The story of the man whose name has, like Casanova's, become a synonym for womanizer has been told in plays, poems, and operas. As legend has it, Don Juan was the son of a 14th Century aristocratic Spanish family named Tenorio who killed a high ranking officer after seducing his daughter (one conquest of anywhere from ninety to over a thousand) and then jokingly invited the statue of his victim to dinner, only to have the sculptured figure come and dispatch him to hell.
Molière's tragi-comic version of this legend followed right on the heels of the religious right's suppression of Tartuffe after just one performance. Common sense would have dictated his making it a light comedy unlikely to give further offense. Instead, casting himself as Sganarelle, Don Juan's servant and the play's social conscience whose asides and debates (Don Juan permits debate but no criticism) with his master prove him to be his intellectual equal. Don Juan, though a sensation, was allowed to play only a little longer than Tartuffe (15 performances) and never again in its author's lifetime.
The aborted early lives of these two plays have not prevented them from taking their place among those owing their masterpiece status to characters that are newly relevant with each passing generation and a challenge for translators, directors and actors revealing Molière's wit and wisdom to the latest crop of theater goers.
This season has provided New York theater goers with a rare opportunity to see both Tartuffe and the less often seen Don Juan. With each mounted by a different company, they illustrate two distinct directorial approaches to tackling a vintage play.
Joe Dowling's approach to Tartuffe for the Roundabout was straightforward. Based on what has become the most widely endorsed translation and demonstrating the company's penchant for sets lavish enough to make one want to inspect the furnishings up close as when visiting a museum, this was a purist pleaser relying on the power of Molière's ideas without any new ones from the director.
Sher, on the other hand, has more ideas than his Don Juan's wig has ringlets. As already stated, he's transformed Molière's rake into an effete dandy who indulges his every whim -- especially where it relates to sexual conquests. Though he has at one point in his unproductive life learned to wield a sword, he relies on his servants to be slavishly attentive to even his most personal needs -- which means Sganarelle (John Christopher Jones) must not only fetch the basin that during the seventeenth century served as a urinal, but must also expedite Don Juan's use of it (as Sher undoubtedly intended, the audience found this hilarious).
The combination of the aristocrat's helpless dependency on servants and the ennui that feeds a short sexual attention span is strikingly evident in our very first view of Don Juan. He's reclining on a bed from which a woman wearing nothing underneath a diaphanous gown rises, indicating that she too attended to the presumably great lover's needs rather than the other way around. She also seems to be Sher's means for foreshadowing the fantastical climax.
Such bits of business are not part of Christopher Hampton's new translation which follows the play's episodic plot-plus-subplots: The main plot strand has Don Juan, hot in pursuit of the woman for whom he deserted the wife he kidnapped from a convent, with the chase after his new sexual prey complicated by a shipwreck which brings yet another eager maiden into the picture. There are also encounters with the deserted wife's brothers who are bent on restoring the family honor; a hungry beggar who turns down a gold coin rather than give in to Don Juan's demand that he curse God; his disgusted father who shortly thereafter, like Orgon in Tartuffe, is easily taken in by his profligate son's self-serving embrace of piety. Overarching all these encounters is the statue of the man Don Juan killed and whose statue is animated to become his guide to his inevitable descent into hell.
Much of the stage business defies logical explanation as much as the rows black garments that hang high over Christopher Akerlind's rather Spartan set. Sher also has no qualms about making Hampton's translation even more current with numerous insertions of contemporary cuss words, mostly for Pierrot, the peasant who rescues Don Juan when his boat capsizes only to have his fiancée stolen. The pre-introducton of Pierrot and his Charlotte (Liam Craig and Nicole Lowrance) as members of the audience and a stage manager/line prompter are further examples of add-ons that are more forced and burlesque-like than funny.
The eleven actors, some playing several roles, are, like the production, a mixed bag. Sherri Parker Lee, Nicole Lowrance, and Anne Louise Zachry are adequate; Liam Craig is too over the top. John Christopher Jones is a splendid counterpoint to Jennings; Nicholas Kepros, a standout in TNFA's The General From America (Review) again shines as Don Juan's father as well as in a cameo as the beggar who refuses to give in to Don Juan's bullying.
The hate of hypocrisy that drives Don Juan to flaunt every rule of his society and pursue one woman after another because none bring him the satisfaction he seeks makes for an interesting but difficult to dramatize character study. Mr. Sher's interpretive touches would probably make Moliére flip his wig.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.