Moliere's fascinating 'Don Juan'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  April 21, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, April 21 (UPI) -- It is a rare treat to see Moliere's audacious play, "Don Juan," based on the same legendary character that inspired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera, "Don Giovanni," and to discover that it can still fascinate more than three centuries after it was first produced.

The story of an unrepentant womanizer who is dragged to Hell in the grasp of a stone statue was given its literary debut in 1630 by a Spanish monk, Tirso de Molina, in a novel titled "The Joker of Seville and the Guest of Stone." As retold by Italian and French writers, the essentially tragic theme took on comic overtones.

Moliere's version of the story, written in prose rather than his usual verse, is a true tragi-comedy focusing on Don Juan's relationship with his moralizing valet, Sganarelle (Mozart's Leporello), who disapproves of his foppish master's profligate lifestyle but is fond of him all the same. Both Don Juan and Sganarelle are psychological types recognizable in modern society, and the clash in their philosophies is still relevant to today's audiences.

Emphasizing the tension between the individual ego and the moral constraints of society and the church, "Don Juan" immediately ran into religious opposition when it was first produced in France in 1665 and was withdrawn after 15 performances. It was revived later in a bowdlerized verse adaptation by Thomas Corneille but was not given a revival in its original form until Louis Jouvet's 1947 production in Paris.

The play is being staged by the Theater For a New Audience at the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortell Theater in a translation by Christopher Hampton, the eminent British playwright-adapter. It stars Byron Jennings, one of the American theater's most versatile actors, in the title role, and John Christopher Jones, an equally experienced talent, as the outspoken Sganarelle.

The sparks that fly between these two resourceful actors make for a wonderful theatrical experience on the same high dramatic level as the recent revival on Broadway of Moliere's "Tartuffe," starring Brian Bedford and Philip Goodman. Under the direction of Bartlett Sher, artistic director of Seattle's Intiman Theater, this production takes an ambivalent attitude toward Don Juan's failure to take responsibility for his actions and is never condemnatory.

"I've tried to take a more psychological approach," Sher said in an interview. "Moliere wasn't capable of not writing about the religious right. I think it needs a certain context in terms of a Catholic story, so we're doing it in period."

The play's time and place are specified by the 17th-century costumes, elegantly designed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, fulsome curly wigs, and Don Juan's deadpan white makeup. Christopher Akerlind's set is a claustrophobic chamber with faded gold walls, representing a room in Don Juan's rundown castle in Sicily, where he lives as luxuriously as he can on credit. For no particular reason, racks of men's coats and pants hang above the stage like displays in a second-hand clothing shop.

How Don Juan deals with his desperate abandoned wife, her aggrieved brothers, his own scandalized father, a pressing creditor, and the ghost of the father-in-law he has murdered is all a part of Moliere's episodic drama. It virtually wallows in sexual allusions but is rarely vulgar, except in a scene with a lovesick peasant whom Don Juan intends to cuckold.

The scene with the stone ghost of the character known as The Commander does not match in horror the comeuppance given Don Juan in Mozart's opera, but then nothing in this play approaches the same emotional depth that Mozart's music confers on this story of megalomaniacal misdeeds and seemingly divine retribution. Mozart, the greater genius, simply did it better.

Other fine performances are being given by Sherri Parker Lee as Dona Elvira, Don Juan's wife, Nicholas Kepros as Don Louis, Don Juan's father, Graham Winton and Dan Snook as Elvira's self-righteous brothers, Liam Craig as a peasant and Nicole Lowrance as his betrothed, Anne Louise Zachry as another peasant, and David Wohl as a tradesman amusingly duped by Don Juan.

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