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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 8, 2002

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Review: Moliere’s `Don Juan’

Neo-classicist director, adapter, and translator

Stephen

Wadsworth has done a remarkable job restoring and re-examining

"Don

Juan," one of Moliere’s lesser plays. In a resplendent staging

at McCarter Theater, this co-production with the Seattle Repertory

Theater reaffirms the ideas that shocked Paris theatergoers in 1665.

The infamous libertine of lore is once again exhumed to haunt and

beguile us, as much through Moliere’s wit and wisdom as through

Wadsworth’s

audaciously stylized imagery.

Even as Wadsworth’s attention to 17th-century theatrical traditions

is notably apparent, he has also drenched this difficult and

confounding

play with 21st century resonance. He has opted for an immediately

accessible vision of the ruthless rake that is mercifully far removed

from the abstracted and nightmarish mask-dominated production provided

by director Richard Foreman for the New York Shakespeare Festival,

in 1982, the only other version of the play I have seen.

Area audiences familiar with Wadsworth’s popular and influential

presentations

of the 18th-century plays of Marivaux can expect to see an equal

amount

of attention lavished on the ornamental detail and deportment of the

17th century. If our ear is occasionally overburdened with

long-winded,

ponderous, and over-the-top speeches, the actors are proficient vocal

stylists and admirable exponents of projection, prose, and poetry.

One of many delightful conceits of the performance are the witty

asides,

spoken to King Louis XIV, who is acknowledged to be in attendance

among us. Such moments are nicely underscored by lovely baroque music.

The eyes have a treat in Kevin Rupnik’s sumptuously painted settings.

McCarter’s large stage has been artfully framed to create more

intimacy

between the audience and the players. A royal coat of arms identifies

the stage as that of the Palais Royal where "Don Juan"

premiered

in 1665. This is where we are introduced to the humorously

attitudinizing

company of actors who formally bow to us in the manner in which they

are accustomed.

We are, indeed, transported to another time by this delightful

affectation.

The witty deployment of 17th-century stagecraft, rolling ocean waves

and a treadmill, are delightful enhancements. The sight of the actors,

grandiose poseurs all, in Anna R. Oliver’s resplendent Louis XIV

period

costumes also commands attention, admiration, and some hearty laughs.

Despite Wadsworth’s bold decision to throw many ideas at the audience

in as many ways as possible, I found myself constantly committed to

what might otherwise become a muddle of moods and shifts of artistic

purpose. It is apparent from the outset that Wadsworth is not out

to obliterate Moliere’s original treatment of a man who, though he

may be seen as a shrewd and intelligent philosopher, mocks the church,

the mores and morals of the time, seduces, marries and abandons women

for personal pleasure. Don Juan makes as much a case for denouncing

religious hypocrisy as he does for the birthing of a new wave of free

thinking. "Tartuffe," Moliere’s no less shocking expose on

similar themes, was still banned from the stage at the time of the

premiere of "Don Juan."

Moliere’s anger comes through vividly in the calculated and

intimidating

facade of Don Juan (Adam Stein) and in the chattering self-amused

Sganarelle (Cameron Folmar), his valet and, if you will, his alter

ego. Their debates, in which the dynamics of the play’s moral issues

are hammered out, are engaged in with a purity of purpose and a

dazzling

elegance. Stein, very young in appearance and impetuous in manner,

presents a rather startling but always fascinating, figure of an

incorrigible.

This Don Juan supports disdain and a vanity we are eager to understand

yet loath to reckon with. After all, as a rational forward-thinking

philosopher ("I believe that two and two makes four") he only

wants what he wants when he wants it.

Just as Don Juan’s credo is to have unbridled sexual

freedom, conspicuous wealth, and social prominence, and to never have

to pay his creditors, so it is his servant Sganarelle’s (in an

exhilarating

performance by Folmar) task to provide the compassion and

clear-headedness.

His florid discourse on the pleasures of sniffing snuff is a hilarious

digression. Of course, his misguided faith and his fear of losing

his job, eventually and unsurprisingly lead to disgust with a master

turned cruel.

Stein and Folmar are masterful together. One of many hilarious moments

between the two finds Sganarelle assisting Don Juan to dress in his

haute-couture finery, starting with purple pantaloons to ("Oh,

these are lovely") . . . I won’t spoil it for you, but I guarantee

you will have a hearty laugh.

Driven by the sheer display of its extravagant trappings, the

production

has no difficulty keeping our attention. In the second half, the play

takes a rather hokey melodramatic route to Don Juan’s damnation

(literally

a trapdoor to hell) and it gets bogged down with excessive theological

moralizing. But it is not the fault of the graceful and elegant

Francesca

Faridany, who, as Donna Elvira, Don’s Juan’s abandoned wife, elegantly

and eloquently, tries to convince Don Juan of the advantages of love

and forgiveness but also of the "power of a woman’s anger."

Like other members of the cast Faridany assiduously assumes another

role, that of the dashing Don Alonso.

Burton Curtis and Mary Bacon are riotous as a pair of comically

feuding

lovers, until they are undone by Don Juan’s skullduggery. Also

impressive

is Frank Corrado as Don Juan’s unforgiving father, and Burton Curtis

as an unwaveringly religious beggar, as are the ensemble of seven

actors, in multiple roles.

Because the original play, banned since its premiere, has not

survived,

Wadsworth has incorporated parts of a Dutch version (from the 1680s)

as well as writing a new prologue ("We made it crude, so it cannot

be misconstrued") in whimsical rhyming couplets, if you please.

Happily Wadsworth has not manipulated Moliere’s theme to make a

modernist

statement. But I suspect he has sought to uncover some of the

mysteries

of Don Juan’s complex, ultimately tragic nature, and to make sure

that Moliere’s great flair for comedy is not ignored. To these ends,

he has succeeded royally.

— Simon Saltzman

Don Juan, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. $30 to $43. Performances continue to Sunday, May 19.


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