I can't think of anyone more authoritative on 17th Century French theatre than Stephen Wadsworth. Not only has he done marvelous adaptations of Marivaux, in addition to this new adaptation of Molière's "Don Juan", but as a director he has a vast knowledge of performance styles, physical production, and above all the attitudes and manners of the stage at Versailles. This fascinating and highly unusual production was more than just accurate, more than well detailed. It was virtually time travel, not only to the mannerisms of the 17th Century, but to the highly charged and dangerous atmosphere of playing at Court, both for audience and playwright.
Molière's "Don Juan" has been a problem play since its first production in 1665. The censors postured their outrage at its rational denials of faith, and many of those sitting in the gilded halls must have been made quite uncomfortable by its amusement at the prevalence and transparency of hypocrisy. Even more of a problem was Molière's lack of concealment, of any artifice beyond the theatre itself. To be a courtier under Louis XIV was to be an actor, and virtually everyone who had contact with the Crown was, in one way or another, a courtier. Don Juan said what many knew but would not say, and what even more understood in ways they may not have even known.
Adam Stein plays Don Juan with clarity and a fearless elan. While everyone may know his womanizing reputation, that was only one element of appetites as varied as they were rapacious. What I especially like about this interpretation is that it presents a man who is not so much at war with convention as he is simply unmoved by it. From religion to family responsibility to sexual fidelity, Don Juan simply refuses to bow to expectation, or to revere what he finds ridiculous. Mr. Stein has sex appeal sufficient to account for his romantic conquests, but more importantly he has the intelligence and commitment to keep us invested in his dangerous games.
As solid as the Don Juan character is, the real standout performance is that of Cameron Folmar as Sganarelle. Matching deft physical comedy with razor sharp wit, his is a constantly interesting balancing act between being a loyal and faithful servant and saving his own hide. His ingenuity is a parallel to the play's joyful invention. Folmar is absolutely wonderful, and if this is the role generally played by Molière himself, then here we have a credible glimpse of what that theatrical genius might have looked like within the context of this play's world.
Other outstanding work is done by Frank Corrado as Don Juan's father. He delivers an impassioned and brilliant monologue on responsibility, and it is a marvel of both social responsibility and personal integrity. Don Juan's rejection of it defines his character as much as anything else he does.
I don't really know how an average audience will respond to this play, with its peculiar postures, archaic stagecraft, period themes and conventions. The comic scenes, such as a very funny, but very broad country humor piece in the first act, is in striking contrast to the serious games Don Juan plays. A terrific lazzi, during which Don Juan carries on simultaneous conversations with women on either side of him, balancing, manipulating, flattering and seducing both, stands on its own as beautifully wrought comedy. Other elements of the play seem oddly misshapen, with the broad comedy and courtly romantic intrigues of the first act giving way to elaborate and substantial speeches, metaphysical challenges and social commentary in the second. Perhaps it will all seem a bit too distant, a bit too strange, or a bit too academic for many. For me, however, it was a thrilling and fascinating treat for the mind and spirit, a sterling argument for just how revolutionary Molière was, and precisely how, given the King's license, and his own unbridled voice, he changed the face of Western theatre.
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