Gisli Orn Gardarsson and Dave Mynne in Don John
(© Kneehigh Theatre)
Gisli Orn Gardarsson and Dave Mynne in Don John
(© Kneehigh Theatre)
The Kneehigh Theatre's production of Don John, now at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, often mesmerizes with its tawdry, vivacious style. It's an occasionally hilarious but always deliciously dark take on the famed Mozart opera, in which adaptor-director Emma Rice has transposed the action to some unspecified grimy industrial backwater in 1970s England.

When the band isn't playing Stu Barker's original music or pitching in with stagehand chores, they're huddled around a flickering campfire built inside a metal drum, looking like unemployed -- or striking -- laborers. Their only entertainments are the outpourings of an old transistor radio and the adventures of Don John (Gísli Örn Gardarsson) unfolding around and above them.

In many ways, the tale remains somewhat the same as ever: The lecherous John becomes besotted with the instinctual yet principled Anna (Nína Dögg Filippusdótti), who is tethered in marriage to Vicar Derek (Craig Johnson) and in duty to her invalid father (Dave Mynne). But there are many modern or updated touches, and not all of which work as well as they might. For example, John doesn't cavalierly warn Anna's father against dueling with him before running him through; instead, after stripping Dad of his gun, John kills him with it in cold blood -- doing Anna a favor to his drugged, besotted way of thinking. The climactic scene where John rapes Anna literally unfolds as the stage crew peels apart the three front walls of the boxcar so that they become extensions of its floor. And there is much to ponder when Rice has Anna wear a blouse stained with her father's blood long after her midnight misadventure, since Anna thought -- or wanted to think -- that it was her husband blindfolding and ravishing her.

On the lighter side, carnival lights strung across the downstage come into play as Alan (Carl Grose), the latter-day Masetto, plans his wedding to the slutty servant Zerlina (Patryca Kujaswka). A flickering bulb nearly gets Alan electrocuted -- twice -- and Grose milks the physical comedy with the grace of a Keystone Cop. When Zerlina later salves Alan's wounds after a brutal thrashing from Don John, her punkish, Polish mothering brings us closest to Mozart's comic spirit. (On the down side, dense accents such as Kujawska's impel us at times to watch the play like a foreign opera without supertitles.)

Gardarsson brings a tall, lean Cheyenne Jackson-like physicality to Don John's debauchery and dissipation, but Rice wisely limits the Icelandic actor's lines as he collects his trophy panties. The verbiage void is partially filled in by Dom Lawton, who narrates as a Paperboy between his lead vocals. Meanwhile, Mike Shepherd flits nervously around as Nobby (the Leporello stand-in) busily taking Polaroids, and Amy Marston as Elvira may remind you of Edvard Munch's iconic painting "Scream."