Thursday, May 22, 2008

Don Juan

Glendale, May 21--

MOLIERE'S DON JUAN is truly a wonderful play; if it's neglected here, it's probably because of Mozart and Da Ponte, who did even more with the theme. That's unfair, of course; no one plumbed the depth of the human conditions more, conditions in the plural, than Mozart and Da Ponte. But Molière has some fun with it, and uses it to make some points still well worth considering.

And it made a splendid end to our tour of theater here: five plays in seven days, three of them first-rate, two of them problematic, as noted earlier. We saw it at A Noise Within, the Glendale repertory company we've visited twice annually for a number of years. In the past we've seen other French rep here: Racine's Phaedra, Ubu Roi, Feydau's A Flea in her Ear, Molière's School for Wives and The Miser, Marivaux's The Triumph of Love -- not bad for six seasons. All these productions were truly excellent: together with productions of Euripides, Gozzi, Chekhov, and Ibsen, they persuade me that Noise Within is at its best with theater in translation, however loyal they may be to their Shakespeare survey and their American rep.

We'd seen a version of Don Juan quite a while ago, in 1994, when le Theâtre de la jeune lune brought their adaptation to Berkeley Rep. It was diverting and enterprising: but, like the Figaro we saw there a few weeks ago, it was heavily adapted; deliberately folded into both Da Ponte's version and George Bernard Shaw's. I'd read the original to prepare for that, and revisited it again this last week, in an ancient two-volume edition (Paris, 1873). Noise Within performed a translation by Richard Nelson: except for some judicious cutting (notably in Molière's opening panegyric to tobacco) it was quite faithful to the original.

What always interests me about the Don Juan story is its moral (and ethical) ambiguity. He's hard on women, there's no doubt about it: but that's mainly because of two things: their vulnerability to pregnancy (and, it must be added, STDs), and the considerable apparatus of disapproval society has constructed to keep women from developing their own lives. I'm not a feminist, you may have noticed: but I think I see some misogynist elements in the attitudes we bring to this Don Juan business.

Any good treatment of the theme has to deal with this, from Molière's, the earliest I've studied, to John Berger's, the most recent. (His novel G (Booker Prize, 1972; some useful reader-comments here) provides quite a different take, considering the seduced as well as the seducer.) Indeed the legend has distant roots, having to do with the genetic value humanity received from sexually hyperactive males: the most dominant presumably transmitted their material to the majority of the next generation, insuring strength and versatility among the progeny, assisting the survival of the species.

(And recent investigations have shown, I recall reading somewhere, that women are unconsciously attracted to one kind of man when they're receptive to fertilization, a very different type when they're thinking of settling down. You want an alpha male to conceive by, apparently, but a more supportive sort to provide for the ensuing family.)

Molière considers much of this, if only between his lines. He also has a lot to say about the societal aspect. The comments on tobacco and medicine and religion are still funny and perhaps jus as pointed; Don Juan's long speech on hypocrisy is as relevant today as it must have been in 1665. (The continuing strength of theatrical social commentary never fails to amaze and impress me: from the Greeks and the Romans, through Shakespeare of course and Molière, to Beaumarchais and Da Ponte and on to Chekhov and Ibsen and so on, theater has constantly re-invented social commentary, irony, protest.)

This Don Juan was directed by Michael Michetti, whose only previous Noise Within outing was with As You Like It in 2006. That struck me at the time as the best Shakespeare we'd seen here, and we'd seen a lot; this strikes me as equally good; I hope Michetti takes a more prominent role within this company.

Two other Noise Within debuts: the tall, handsome, romantic Elijah Alexander as Don Juan; the evocative, deft, extremely funny JD Cullum as Molière -- I mean, Sganarelle, the Leporello-figure, Don Juan's valet. Each was right on the mark, and their ensemble made a third character as inevitable and fascinating as the two who produced it.

I liked Libby West as the lovestruck, regretful, ultimately quite touching Elvira; and Abby Craden, a fine ingenue Charlotte (Zerlina to Mozart fans); and Kyle Nudo as her Masetto-Pierrot. Elvira's brothers were Stephen Rockwell and Dale Sandlin, lithping in the Cathtilian manner, hilarious. The supporting cast was beautifully scaled and ably performed, and the sets -- designed by Michetti -- were evocative.

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