Pop culture loves a bad boy – and throughout the ages, many a woman has swooned for him onstage, on the page, and onscreen. Long before we fell for Don Draper, there was Don Juan, a swordsman, scoundrel and seducer able to remove a woman’s innocence, husband, undergarments and even her nun’s habit with his charm and promises.
A new production of this dramatic classic – “a bold new adaptation of Molière’s most scandalous comedy,” as the marketing promises – has just opened at The Cultch in Vancouver, adapted and directed by John Wright, who consulted “every available version of the play,” according to the playbill. Wright is the artistic director of Blackbird Theatre, which in recent Decembers has offered a cultural antidote to the silly season, just at the point when you’re truly Nutcrackered out. Blackbird has mounted commercially successful and critically acclaimed productions of classics such as Waiting for Godot, Hecuba and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This year it is Molière’s turn.
The 17th-century French playwright wrote his Don Juan – titled Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre – as an angry response to the banning of his previous play, Tartuffe. But Don Juan fared no better, and was shut down after just two weeks. Others have put their own stamp on the Don Juan legend – including Mozart with his opera Don Giovanni, Lord Byron with his mock-epic poem and George Bernard Shaw with Man and Superman.
In Wright’s adaptation, Don Juan (Peter Jorgensen) and his servant/confidante/conscience-if-he-had-one Sganarelle (Simon Webb) have left town and abandoned Don Juan’s most recent conquest, Dona Elvira (Barbara Kozicki), of whom Don Juan has tired. Sganarelle explains that his master falls for many women, seduces them and discards them once the passion wears off. Dona Elvira’s case is particularly heinous, as she has left the convent to marry him.
When she tracks him down, he is astonishingly cold-hearted, so past his feelings for her that he cannot be bothered to lie and profess love he does not feel. In love with the chase rather than the women, he has already set his sights elsewhere.
His licentious lifestyle soon catches up with him. When he and Sganarelle visit the tomb of a commander Don Juan has killed some months ago, they are shocked when the statue moves.
Don Juan should fear for his life – and his fate in the afterlife. Instead, he continues with his wicked ways and does not repent. We do get that magnificent final monologue, where he rails against societal hypocrisy. Are we to be convinced that this was his motivation all along – that he was ruining lives to prove an ideological point? Or is this a desperate bit of backward rationalizing to defend outrageous behaviour? It’s hard to know sitting in the audience – so little do we really know about Don Juan – but God goes with the latter, and off Don Juan goes to hell.
We are not quite dragged down there with him, but nor does this production live up to its billing. It does not feel bold or scandalous or even very funny.
The wooing of women in the first half is mere farce; in no way does it demonstrate the true malice – or charm – of this Lothario. In fact it’s not until he charms a man – a creditor to whom he owes a debt – that we begin to understand his powers. Unfortunately, we must wait until after intermission for this truly funny scene.
A rake requires redemptive qualities to really draw us in. Mad Men’s Don Draper sleeps his way across Manhattan, but we love him anyway – for his intellect, his leadership and his charisma in both the bedroom and the boardroom. But Wright’s Don Juan? He is not even charming, and he’s certainly not terrifying. This Don Juan is utterly unlikable – which makes it difficult for this production to work. Where we expect magnetism, we get two-dimensional meh.
There is, however, a lot to love here: the classic-contemporary mix, with commedia dell’arte masks and Tim Matheson’s video projections onto neoclassical columns; and a rock Latin mass composed by Peter Berring, pairing choral music with electric guitar. Webb, playing the role originated by Molière himself, steals every scene, funny and smart and angst-ridden as he moralizes from behind the harpsichord or assists in his master’s amoral schemes.
But we do not love Don Juan – or, more to the point, understand why all those women have loved him. It’s unclear whether this is the fault of the script, the direction, or the performance, but that seduction we hope to feel when the lights go down in the theatre – no matter what the show – fails to take hold.
Don Juan continues at Vancouver’s Historic Theatre until Jan. 26.