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Theatre in Review: Don Juan (Pearl Theatre Company)

Justin Adams. Photo: Russ Rowland

Considering that his name has become a symbol for womanizers everywhere, it's a little surprising that we don't see more productions of Don Juan. Perhaps it's because Mozart has superseded Molière in the popular imagination. Or perhaps modern audiences are willing to laugh at the title character's escapades but are less comfortable with the play's theological underpinnings; people just don't enjoy a good damnation anymore. If so, Jess Burkle's free adaption of the original may be just the thing; if this all-shtick-all-the-time approach leaves the play's darker side mostly in the dark, it does provide a steady stream of laughs, and it also provides a solid showcase for a couple of new faces.

Justin Adams' Don Juan amuses from his first entrance, to a chorus of rock-star applause; cleverly dressed by Anya Klepikov in a style best described as Louis IV meets Journey -- with a puffy period blouse matched with body-hugging spandex trousers and a startlingly evident codpiece, plus a silver leather jacket trimmed with fringe and angel wings -- he immediately begins eyeing every comely lady in the audience. "Variety is the spice of life -- and I like mine extra spicy!" he asserts. He hops from one amour to another with unstoppable zest; his boyish enthusiasm for each new lady in his sight is so infectious that we almost forget the trail of broken hearts left behind him. (In this version, he's not above making a pass at a member of his own gender, if he thinks it will serve his ends.) At the same time, there's an undertone of ruthlessness that becomes evident in the final act, when, in his most brazen tactic, he adopts a pose of piety, telling his shocked servant, Sganarelle, "I didn't invent the rules. I'm just good at playing the game. And if you're not playing along, you're being played....Don't look so shocked. There's no shame in it anymore. Hypocrisy is all the rage." (Burkle's adaptation is at its strongest in this final scene, when the laughter is turned on us and we realize that our indulgence of Don Juan is an indictment of us.) This is apparently Adams' debut at the Pearl and I hope we see him again soon.

Pete McElligott, who made a strong impression in the relatively small role of the valet in the Pearl's production of No Exit last season, pulls off a nifty double act here. He appears first as Pierrot, the country bumpkin whose dim girlfriend ends up as another notch on Don Juan's belt. This is in Act II (of five), set in a countryside where Don Juan and Sganarelle turn up after a shipwreck; in Burkle's version, the locals speak with a bizarre accent that adds an "uh" to the beginning and/or end of practically every word, and which, in practice, veers between sounding Italian and vaguely Scandinavian. It's a terrible-seeming idea and is funnier than it has any right to be, thanks largely to McElligott's deft way with words. On the page, a line like, "Then Big uh-Luke-un takes uh big-look-uh, and uh-he says-us, 'I uh-don't us-see uh-nothing uh," should make you groan, but the actor converts it into surprisingly laugh-provoking vaudeville. It's even easier to treasure Pierrot's comment that he instantly recognized the Don as an aristocrat because his clothes made no sense. McElligott returns later on as Don Carlos, the supremely world-weary brother of Donne Elvire, the postulant whose life has been ruined by Don Juan. All too familiar with the drill of chivalry, he announces, "So, you know, we're searching for him to exact our revenge and uphold the Lord's will and blah, blah, blah." Without a program at hand, you would never guess that the same actor is playing both roles.

There are other solid contributions, too, in Hal Brooks' lively, if slightly underpopulated, production. Jolly Abraham's elegant way with a line makes her a fine choice as Donne Elvire, first in her denunciation of Don Juan and later in her powerful forgiveness of him, which, ironically, sets up the Don's masquerade as a penitent Christian. She is less effective as one of Elvire's brothers, but this is a quick appearance and soon forgotten. Chris Mixon vies for the title of the hardest-working man in show business, playing no fewer than five roles, including the Statue that comes to life and ushers Don Juan into the inferno. (He also appears in drag as a less-than-comely peasant girl who nevertheless catches Don Juan's eye.) He impersonates three characters in a single scene, swapping out one elaborate costume for another with considerable aplomb. Isabella Curti is amusing as Pierrot's brainless intended, who can never quite figure out the intentions behind his words of wooing. Less successful is Brad Heberlee's Sganarelle; the role is a difficult one -- he exists mostly to be Don Juan's whipping boy -- and their scenes together are the dullest in the play. At the performance I attended, Heberlee earned a hand for his delivery of a long speech constructed entirely of clichés, but his constant bursts of outrage simply aren't as funny as one wants them to be.

For all its contemporary touches, the action unfolds on a set designed by Harry Feiner that features an elaborately painted upstage piece -- an oval depicting a cloud-filled sky populated by classical figures -- that could have come from a ceiling designed by Jean Bérain, Molière's house designer, or was possibly left over from an Inigo Jones court masque; the stage is also strewn with broken classical columns. Klepikov's costumes are both elaborately detailed and rigged for some remarkable quick changes. Peter West's lighting and Jane Shaw's sound -- which includes period music, birdsong, and the rumble of thunder -- are both solid achievements.

For all of Adams' fine work in the final act, Don Juan's ultimate, brimstone-tinged fate is less effective than it might be. There is a more serious play inside these antics, and it often struggles to get out. But there is also plenty to like in Brooks' production. In any case, this is a rare chance to meet up with one of drama's most famous characters, and as such it is unlikely to disappoint. -- David Barbour

(18 May 2015)

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