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Don Juan by Moliere

   Don Juan is performed through March 19. Shakespeare Theatre Company

Review by Grace Cavalieri

We can look at classic theater and see old favorites appear on stage each decade. Then there are other plays that are rarely done. Moliere’s Don Juan is one we hardly ever see in this country. Director Stephen Wadsworth seems to have made this his Ars Poetica and we are the luckier for that. He has mounted this elsewhere, and is dedicated to a newly restored text. In addition, he adds his own colloquy, modernism, and then a layer of 17th century production as we might have seen it in the original form. And this amalgam you will not see anywhere else in today’s theater.

The prologue is a tableau where the characters present themselves in mime. The epilogue, we expect to be as pretty but we are not prepared for the last moments of the evening to be the best. Wadsworth frames his show with music of the period, and ends the evening with a cast in precise dance and gesture that evoke the relationships, the manners, and the bemused agreement that we are looking at this from another century; and tacitly, that we are all in this together“Long Live the King” is a phrase that is tossed out from time to time, (as Louis XIV was present at the original production.) Moliere had already been in trouble with his previous production of Tartuffe that jeered society’s fakery. And along comes Don Juan, which does it that much more. Calling out “Long Live...” did not spare the original production, which was closed down, after the first act of censorship in France. The non sequitur sails across the audience, and takes on more irony  each time. The performance begins with a player trumpeting:  “Long Live the King who subsidizes art...(sic)...that he’ll pardon those who played Tartuffe.”  Thus, Don Juan is performed, and to take care that it is not misconstrued, the narrator adds “ It is but a bright parade.” (Nothing to fear here, King.) That did not satisfy the 17th century court and critics, and Moliere leaves it to satisfy us, 300 plus years later.

Stephen Wadsworth is to be credited for saving and quilting together pieces of the original drama. With new scholarship, he has rescued and imagined a new translation. The French Government has decorated him for literary achievements.

The production, as is always true at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is unmatched excellence. I cannot say enough good things about the technical (Joan Alheger, lights,),the lush costumes (Anna R. Oliver, ) the set designs (Kevin Rupnik.)  I attended the production with visual artists and I wish Rupnik could hear their comments. It was a bright parade indeed.

My problem with the piece pertains to the language.  Richard Wilbur's translations of other Moliere are lyrical and witty, and both at the same time! This rendering is sometimes witty, sometimes lyrical, but never manages to find a safe place. This is maybe too much to ask – consistency -  when we are faced with burlesque, satire, farce, caricature, and a message.

And what is Moliere’s message? That some men (of noble lineage) think they are above the law. (“Long Live the King,”) and that belief systems are to be exposed and challenged, for perhaps, greed and power fuel the creed. Moliere takes on the medical profession, the legal, and the ruling class. He does this through Don Juan - whose only honor is getting what he wants at the moment, creating his own currency in a world he makes corrupt.

The ghost of a Commander once murdered by Don Juan appears as a statue on a horse. Gilbert Cruz is the super-actor who holds his arm aloft in a pose for so long, no one seated around me suspected the statue was real. Until the wonderful moment of movement. This explains, I thought, why the play is so seldom done. Who can hold his arm in the air for that long? This Ghost-of-murders-past is followed by other specters of death in the final scenes; and Don Juan descends to hell right there before us, on stage, (I knew Hell was underneath theater all the time,) but there he goes amidst smoke and light, to leave his poor servant still waiting for his wages. 

Don Juan is a fanciful villain. He attempts to pay a starving man to curse God.  There is always the background hum in this theater piece about today’s affairs. In our time, villains curse the man, perhaps, who will not praise God. Stephen Wadsworth is sharply aware of all the innuendoes. And so, therefore, are we.

The small cast is excellent, with actors doubling roles, crossing genders successfully. Jeremy Webb plays Don Juan (an uncanny facial structure, many noticed, resembling George W, “ I am sure this is coincidence,” the person behind me murmured.) Webb plays his part with acrobatic force. Michel Milligan is the long-suffering servant, Sganarelle, leading a robust cast. My kiss on the cheek goes to the choreographer Daniel Pelzig, who changes the bright parade from procession to ballet.

Don Juan is performed through March 19. Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh Street SE, Washington, DC.

Grace Cavalieri is a Playwright, a Poet, and Producer of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" on public radio.

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