By Pat Launer
On one stage, there’s too much gay goings-on;
On another, the brilliant seducer, Don Juan,
Whose play and production, as dramatic art
Ignite the mind and touch the heart.
Dine out on “Don Juan.” A sumptuous feast for the theater gourmet. Light, rich, meaty, frothy, scrumptious. A dramatic meal fit for a king. Long live the King (that would be Molière, the king of socio-political heresy!)
If you love the French playwright (or even if you don’t). If you’ve ever wondered what a perfect Molière production would look like — reverential to its period and relevant to ours. And if you’ve never seen the Comédie Française and were curious. Then this is the show for you. For anybody. Well, anybody who loves the theater.
The Globe production of “Don Juan,” translated, adapted and directed by Stephen Wadsworth, is just about flawless. Every move, every look, every costume, every performance… glorious!
Let’s start with the trappings. Kevin Rupnik’s scenic design, with its layered sequence of flats and elaborate proscenium arch, is breathtaking. Matched only by the magnificent costumes, with their parallel layers of ruffles and frills and sumptuous fabric (designed by Anna R. Oliver). And the performances have layers, too… underscored and brought into relief by Joan Arhelger’s lighting.
Wadsworth’s translation/adaptation is terrific — timely, edgy, provocative and colloquial — just like Molière’s original, in the brief time the play ran in Paris in 1665. Close on the heels of the suppressed “Tartuffe,” this piece had even more problems with the pre-Revolutionary censors in the court of Louis XIV. But it stands as a brilliant exposé of religion, politics and the social order, spouting arguments that are no less apt today — maybe more so.
Don Juan, that notorious rake, is multi-layered, too. Not just a charismatic roué, he’s a bona fide iconoclast, railing against societal hypocrisy even as he wallows in his own. He’s a radical thinker, fearless and lawless, and we love his anarchism, even as we deplore his heartlessness. Adam Stein, a long-ago veteran of San Diego Junior Theatre, is deliciously irreverent as the irrepressible Don. Here, his intellect almost outweighs his debauchery. But he’s a master of both, and Stein makes him irresistible, even if he isn’t physically overwhelming. As his ever-faithful valet Sganarelle, a role Molière himself played, Andrew Weems is a slippery and humorous fellow who slavishly follows his master until he cannot follow him any more. Their interactions are delectable. On the night we were there, Stein’s wig fell off in the first scene (a wonderful sequence where Sganarelle dresses Don Juan). Without skipping a beat, Stein ad-libbed and improvised, even asking for the Rogaine, and Weems was right there with him, playing along. That’s exactly as it should be; the original text was open and improvisational, and these actors couldn’t have been more ideally in the spirit of the creation; Molière would definitely have approved.
As Donna Elvira, the most recent woman Don Juan done wrong, Francesca Faridany is luminous. She’s a welcome return presence, after her wonderful turn here last year as “Fraulein Else” at the La Jolla Playhouse. She and her husband/director make such a marvelous team; he knows just how to highlight her dramatic gifts, which are prodigious. The rest of the cast is excellent. It’s a marvelous ensemble in a wonderful production of a remarkable play. As they’d probably said in the 17th century, it made me swoon.
TOO MUCH TOUCHING … AND NOT TOUCHING ENOUGH
“Places to Touch Him” (an icky title) is about a lonely, gay Latino lawyer/politician. But most of those epithets are ancillary. It’s really all about a solitary guy wanting a relationship. And having false expectations — of himself and others. It’s all about being afraid to let go, emotionally and sexually.
Guillermo Reyes’ play really tells us very little about gay Latinos or Latinos in politics — or the politics of gay Latinos. And, as directed by Jeffrey Ingman, soon-to-be acting executive director of Diversionary Theatre, it’s a hair’s breadth away from porn. Hope this is not a harbinger of things to come; it reminded me of the old Diversionary, in the days before Chuck Zito came in from New York as executive director, promising to produce good plays that happened to have gay themes or characters. And he delivered. In spades. So what happened? This is a less-than-good (let alone important) play — in a less-than-stellar production. It’s excessive in all the wrong ways.
The scenic design (James Ferguson) is overly fussy and distracting. The costumes (Shulamit Nelson), while inventive, are gratuitous. Why do we need to see three Velcro, pull-apart strip acts when the actor, while having a lovely, lean body, is clearly no dancer? Oh, and must we have three TV monitors (in such a tiny space!) projecting not only irrelevant, prurient, skin-baring video from The White Party 2001 on the beach? Not to mention stills of the 3-way that is suggested in the second act. The director doesn’t seem to think the audience has any imagination.
Though the actors are all working and trying hard, the casting is misconceived. The central character, Cesar (Benito Gutierrez) is a man of privilege. He’s not an immigrant, and not even first generation; his father is a professor of Chicano poetry in an American university. It strains credulity to cast an actor who’s doing his first English-language play, who has such a heavy accent that he often has trouble being understood, especially during the intellectual disquisitions on Apollonian vs. Dionysian questions of rationality vs. impulse. Only at the end, in his City Council acceptance speech — spoken loudly and slowly (and effectively projected via live camera) — does Gutierrez really rise to the occasion. On the other end of the socio-political spectrum, Ciceron Altarejos, as the seductive, first-generation Bad Boy, struggles to achieve a credible accent. The two gringos who serve as foils, while looking perfect for their parts — as barhop-cutie (adorable high school student Diego San Miguel) and bitter, cynical campaign manager (lanky Thomas Hall), seem to have been directed to play one note — cute/provocative or perpetually sneering (respectively). To be fair, each of the actors has a moment of credible honesty, and those few scenes rescue the evening, however briefly. But what’s most lacking here is real emotion. We get much more body than heart.
I’m looking forward to upcoming Diversionary productions, helmed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (“Fit to Be Tied,” opening October 23) and Rosina Reynolds (“”Wrinkles,” Jan. 14). Hopefully, actor/director Tim Irving will be back to work his magic at Diversionary once again, too. Let’s get back to good productions of good plays. Diversionary has given us (the general audience) far too much great work to abandon us now.
TONY, TONY Bo-BONY…….
Don’t forget The Tonys, coming up on Sunday, June 6. The next night, I’ll be guest-hosting on KPBS-TV’s “Full Focus,” for a show devoted to the Tonys — and the (numerous) San Diego connections to the New York theater scene. Don’t miss it — Monday, June 7, KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11) at 6:30 and 11pm.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Calling all actors! A GREAT event is coming up — an AUDITION FORUM, featuring a panel of some of San Diego’s best directors, ready to tell you what they like, dislike and expect in an audition, plus general tips/hints about audition material, protocols, etc. If you wanna work in this town, you’ll be there. Panelists include (but may not be limited to): Kathy Brombacher, David Ellenstein, Brendon Fox, Paula Kalustian, Sean Murray, Rick Simas, Todd Salovey, Robert Smyth. How can you lose?? And extra bonus — it’s free!! Monday, July 5 at 7pm at the Theatre in Old Town. Be there!
Hope to see you Wednesday night, June 2, at the reading of “Mendel, Inc.” at NCRT. I’ll be onstage playing wife to David Ellenstein. Hope you’ll be there, too.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Don Juan” — brilliantly directed, wonderfully acted, gorgeous to behold. If you love the theater, you really CAN’T and SHOULDN’T miss this one! At the Globe, through June 13.
“A Life in the Theater” — outstanding duet by Jonathan McMurtry and Fran Gercke; they play actors who play off each other beautifully; at North Coast Rep, through June 6.
“Shirley Valentine” — virtuoso performance by Rosina Reynolds in a warm, funny, touching play. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through June 6, and at North Coast Repertory Theatre from June 10-13.
It’s June — and San Diego theater is in full bloom!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.