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Based on Don Juan by Moliere
Created by A Slightly Isolated Dog
Directed by Leo Gene Peters
A sexy, fierce, raucous celebration.
Don Juan explodes with the energy of a music gig or a club. It’s a cabaret. It’s chaos. It’s a furious adrenalized romp through the games of attraction and sexuality. It’s the BEST… PARTY… EVER.
Five mad performers use a variety of theatrical forms and styles to bring an adaptation of Moliere’s classic play to life. Loaded with pop songs and flirting, this imaginative work will continually intrigue, delight and surprise.
While the bar keeps serving drinks. All night long.
CLEVERLY CRAFTED FUN
Reviewed by John Smythe, 26 Apr 2015
After a day drenched in commemoration of the Gallipoli landings and the shocking “sheer waste of good men” that followed, we gather at Circa Two to witness A Slightly Isolated Dog’s brand new recreation of Moliere’s Don Juan (part three of his ‘hypocrisy trilogy’ which also includes A School for Wives and Tartuffe). Is hypocrisy – the pretence of honour and virtue – the common denominator, then? Is the link that the quest for adventure leads the ‘hero’ into a ‘flaming abyss’? Or am I over-thinking a simple accident of scheduling?
The legendary Spaniard Don Juan (upon whom the actual Italian Casanova may have modelled himself 150 years later) is a sex addict: a wonton user (and abuser?) of women and enrager of men who – be they the women’s fathers, brothers, wannabe fiancés, or husbands – want to kill him. And this production seems to assume we already know that, and only need to be reminded of it, in order to get the drift of the sketchy narrative that supports their fun-filled performing.
Tirso de Molina wrote El Burlador de Sevilla in 1630, during Spain’s Golden Age of arts and literature, as a morality-cum-cautionary tale for libertines, and it has been adapted through the ages since. Apart from Molière’s Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre (1665), Wikipedia lists ), Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte (1787), Byon’s epic poem Don Juan (1821), José de Espronceda’s poem El estudiante de Salamanca (1840) and José Zorrilla‘s play Don Juan Tenorio (1844 – and still performed every November 2 throughout the Spanish-speaking world).
Each age embraces the myth as a means of commenting on contemporary values, ethics and social mores. That the women all want it and love making ‘love’ with Don Juan – even though some make the mistake of wanting long term commitment as well – raises the question of whether this is a male fantasy or just as well-suited to a female fantasy: the skilled ‘dream lover’ with whom one may be totally abandoned and sexually fulfilled with no strings attached.
The ensemble nature of this Leo Gene Peters-directed production – played in sexy French accents by Maaka Pohatu, Andrew Paterson, Susie Berry, Comfrey Sanders and Jonathan Price but constantly referencing Wellington in the here and now – renders Don Juan himself a rather elusive character. And those he encounters are even more two-dimensional. So the complex and contrapuntal intricacies of sexual desire and social conventions – let alone the morality, amorality and torments of addiction – are not up for thorough investigation or interrogation here.
Or are they? Just when I am beginning to think all we are getting is a high-camp skim across the surface of a classic tale, being wantonly used (and abused?) to display highly entertaining acting and singing skills, I realise there is more happening here than initially meets the eye and ear; the ancient tale is being used to reflect the actors and us: the lives all of us have led and are leading here and now.
The central themes are cleverly re-contextualised when members of the audience are enrolled in a heart-breaking event from the past then a desire for something to come, each involving them and a cast-member. (To be more specific would constitute a spoiler.)
Don Juan’s actions are commented on in ways that ostensibly link to the performers’ own lives (“He lied to his father? Have you ever done that?” “Never! Oh, there was that time …”). An extended cogitation on what might be worrying an unusually contemplative Don Juan elicits a compelling array of 21st century problems that totally undercut the presumed heights of passion. The proverbial mirror is getting a good workout here.
That so much seems incidental and even spontaneous is belied by Don Juan’s dialogue being spoken on mic, with enhanced tonality, by one actor while another – wearing DJ’s white baseball cap and coloured scarf, and holding an amplifier / speaker – lip-syncs. All achieve this feat with a panache that belies their precision, proving this is a meticulously plotted and highly rehearsed show.
Matt Eller’s sound contributions, mostly worked live from his desk in an onstage alcove, are simply superb – the impeccably timed swishing swords and clashing blades, especially. Full credit for the multi-weapon carnage sequence too, which is in such gross bad taste and so ludicrously extended that all we can do in the end is laugh.
The way audience participation – of which there is lots – is handled is totally unthreatening, to the relief of many. Punters are cast in crucial cameo roles and fed lines by the cast which they mostly speak into microphones. It has to be noted this opening night audience is replete with ‘luvvies’ and the actors choose people they know for the cameos and key interactions, so a common comment afterwards is “how will it go with strangers who are not professional actors?” Just fine, I would guess, and possibly even better, but that remains to be seen.
Proceedings are punctuated with a number of pop songs – by The Coasters, Beyonce, Fiona Apple, Erykah Badu and Kanye West – resoundingly rendered by the cast (aping the American accents of the originals). They do not advance the plot but do reflect the emotional themes, so integrate well while supplying powerful injections of energy.
Meg Rollandi’s design is mostly evident in the costumes, which suggest the cast has raided a dress-up box and attests loud and clear to the playfulness of the whole enterprise. Stock devices are produced from suitcases to evoke such things as storms at sea and a forest of trees, and again the apparently random nature of the design elements belies the astuteness of her choices.
A ‘break for drinks’ interrupts the flow of the show in a rather odd way. Some audience members have realised they can pre-buy shots of something that looks like Irish Cream or Kahlua and milk, and bar staff duly deliver them by tray in a number of shifts while those without tokens wait and watch the perfunctory dancing with which the cast attempts to fill the gap. It’s not quite an interval yet not part of the show and needs to be re-thought.
So, does this Don Juan achieve what the media release suggests? “They question our repression and domestic anxieties: our desire to be bold and our fears that often keep us from doing the things we want most. They try and fail to find these answers; ultimately celebrating our uncertainty and our continual attempt to live big.” I can’t say it resonates that way for me, based on this opening night – although any hollowness sensed below this 80-odd minutes of undeniable fun could well be as crafty as all its other qualities.
More recent online publicity promotes it thus: “A sexy, fierce, raucous celebration. Don Juan explodes with the energy of a music gig or a club. It’s a cabaret. It’s chaos. It’s a furious adrenalized romp through the games of attraction and sexuality. It’s the BEST… PARTY… EVER.” Hyperbole aside, that’s a more accurate description.
The other possible ‘accident of scheduling’ – and if it is, it’s a happy one – is that the season runs alongside the NZ International Comedy Festival, although it is not part of it. If it had been, it would be hailed as a highly sophisticated show and a cut above the usual fare.
Created by A Slightly Isolated Dog, one of Wellington’s most innovative and exciting companies. Critically acclaimed and award winning shows include: Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants (2009, 2011), Perfectly Wasted (2012 – in partnership with Long Cloud Youth Theatre) and Settling (2007).