Monday, October 21, 2013

Don Juan in Hell

Steve Capra's review:
Don Juan in Hell
by George Bernard Shaw
directed by Karen Case Cook
with: Elise Stone
Jason O’Connell
Joseph J. Menino
Craig Smith
George Bernard Shaw wrote Man and Superman in 1903. He revived the comedy of manners to present the Don Juan myth taken from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Now, Shaw saw women as the sexual aggressor, intent on procreation and furthering human development. In his version of the story it is Dona Ana (now personified as Ann Whitefield) who chases Don Juan (John Tanner). Shaw was influenced by the Nietzchean idea of the Superman, and it was woman who would produce that Superman.
The play is full of erudite Shavian cleverness, but its greatness comes from Tanner’s dream that takes up nearly all of the third act – Don Juan in Hell. It is in style and tone totally different than the larger play, and nearly sui generis in modern drama.
Don Jan in Hell is less a drama than a dramatic dialog. John Tanner shows up as Don Juan himself, Ann Whitefield as Dona Ana. Ana’s father the Commander shows up, as does the devil himself, in all his charm. DJ and the devil engage in a friendly but mutually biting philosophical argument. Beneath it is a contest for the soul of the Commander, who’s decided to move down from heaven. DJ being the move persuasive, in the end he changes his mind.
Hell isn’t such a bad place. “Hell is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues”, DJ says. “Have I not told you that the truly damnedare those who are happy in hell?” DJ is above all this; his ideal is the great Life Force. “Heaven is the home of the masters of reality.”
Shaw’s skill at writing this polemic dialogue is incredibly deft. The arguments are dizzying. There are countless Shavian reversals. What’s even more impressive is the characters’ habit of co-opting one another’s arguments. The play demands from the audience a great facility of to listen just to keep up with the verbal acrobatics. What keeps us absorbed is the flow of thought in the moment. But few of us have the ability to hear the current thought in the context of the much larger flow of argument.
The Phoenix Theater Ensemble has produced Don Juan off-off-Broadway. This exquisite production animates the weighty text by tight, quick direction and wonderful acting. The space is small and Spartan. The small bare room in which it’s staged – nothing but a low rectangular wall, center – serves up a dramatic compression.
Karen Case Cook wisely keeps the presentation straightforward, without tricks or gimmicks. Her direction is opaque; we’re never aware of it. It’s enormously precise. The arguing never cools, and its rhythm never falters. This is the glossy, polished sheen of theater, not its psychological depth.
The cast can’t be faulted. They maintain the tone that’s unique to the play and they mine as much variety as they can within that tone. The three gentlemen on stage are superb, never ranting, never losing the flow of argument. But the most marvelous performance comes from Karen Case Cook as Dona Ana. With little to say, she never flags in her listening. She discovers every word with intelligent attention, engrossed. She has the smile of a student fascinated by the subject at hand and with a bit of genius herself.
Dona Ana’s progress is less toward improvement than toward self-realization. She finally arrives there in the last line closing the dream: “My work is not yet done. I believe in the life to come. A father for the Superman!”
However, one might not be blamed for being taken aback by the play's philosophy. After all, hell is the home of the "seven deadly virtues", and Don Juan says of the place "Here we worship love and beauty." But Shaw enjoyed shocking his audience.
In the final analysis, Don Juan in Hell demands to be studied, not heard. It’s too enormous for an audience to comprehend in the theater. It would take a Shavian mind. As the Commander says,“This is extremely abstract and metaphysical.” More credit to The Phoenix Theater Ensemble for producing it.