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Sherri Parker Lee and Byron Jennings
in Don Juan
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Imagine an overturned Godiva chocolates box with one side cut away, enlarge the image a thousandfold, and you've got a fix on the set that Christopher Akerlind has designed for Bartlett Sher's Theatre for a New Audience production of Don Juan. Imagine racks of black clothes hung three deep across the top of the box -- as if they've been stripped from anonymous victims of unspecified crimes -- and you've grasped the unsettling atmosphere infusing this treatment of Molière's anomalous 1665 work. Imagine the gaudy, black and gold vest and pantaloons that Elizabeth Caitlin Ward has put on Don Juan and the gauzy frocks in which she has garbed the women competing for Don Juan's attentions, and you'll have some idea of the shimmering yet shabby excesses exposed here. Imagine the garish beams that lighting designer Akerlind throws around like distress flares and the cacophonous noises that designer Peter John Still has blended out of 20th century Howlin' Wolf, 12th century Perotin, and thunder claps, and you'll have a sense of the ghoulish sights and sounds in Don Juan's world as Sher wants them to be seen and heard.

The creative team that Sher has assembled has done its skilled utmost to shape an environment that suits the exotic needs of both Molière and Sher. (These artists work regularly with Sher in Manhattan and at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, where he's artistic director.) That the production is so stunningly realized yet severely malfunctions means that the weak collaborative link must be the usually accomplished Sher, he who found every value in Harley Granville Barker's Waste when TFANA presented it in 2000 and who fiddled around cheerfully with Cymbeline for the company last year. This time out, Sher doesn't score cleanly -- which is certainly allowable for artists who habitually go as far as they can. Sometimes, when someone's out on a limb, the bough breaks.

No one ever said that Don Juan is a cinch to pull off. Even though it's written in prose and its actors are therefore spared having to emote in rhymed couplets, it remains a devilishly difficult piece. The rough going starts -- and finishes, really -- with the slippery title character. Impelled to serve only his basest desires, Molière's Don Juan is not so much immoral as amoral. When his retainer Sganarelle questions the master on his intention to flaunt a new religious humility, the obdurate wastrel declaims, "There's no harm in that nowadays. Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice...Once you put on the mask, you become part of a kind of secret society, and no one dares attack you or he'll bring the whole pack down upon him."

At the same time, then, that Don Juan is malevolence incarnate, he represents a perverse honesty that demands grudging respect. That's what makes the play so tempting, and why should a director who has made his reputation by giving in to outsize theatrical temptations be expected to resist this one? Still, the Don Juan problem remains, and the solution that Sher suggests isn't the right one -- or a right one. Any director, no matter how relevant he believes Don Juan is to the age at hand, won't prove that thesis if he doesn't hit the right character balance. He's got to get just the right grip on the irredeemable and elusive Don.

To play that role in this production, Sher has tapped Byron Jennings, who was magnetic as the ill-fated Henry Trebell in Waste and who has since amassed an impressive list of credits. Jennings seems a smart choice here, too. First seen lolling in bed with a lady in a ghostly peignoir, he rises moments later. Powdered, gaunt, and appearing to be sporting yesterday's lipstick, this Don Juan effetely lights a cigarette as he sets Sganarelle (John Christopher Jones) about his degrading chores. Opening his maquillage case and examining his male-beauty potential, he seems uninterested in moving any more swiftly than he has to. He remains languorous when accosted by Elvira (Sherri Parker Lee), whom he's abducted in order to marry her and for whom he retains no sexual feeling. Although he chastises her, he does so in desultory tones.

John Christopher Jones and Byron Jennings in Don Juan
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Here's a fellow who only quickens his pace when he sights a potential conquest or two, as he does when the nubile Charlotte (Nicole Lowrance) and the seductive Mathurine (Anne Louise Zachry) amble past him. He betrays further signs of life much later, when his father arrives to fume accusingly. But because it begins to feel as if Jennings's Don Juan crosses a room no more speedily than a glacier moves across a meadow, energy seeps steadily from the play's intermittent, jumpy action. Before the first of the production's two acts has finished, there have been a number of stage waits through which herds of indolent sheep could have been driven. This Don seems to be the man for whom was coined the phrase, "His entrance into any room is followed by a lull."

Sher does pump some life into a few sections of the play. Don Juan leaps to action when, out of uncharacteristic concern for the underdog, he defends a man who turns out to be Elvira's revenge-seeking brother, Don Carlos (Graham Winton). The tempo is kept on the quick when Elvira's second brother, Don Alonso (Dan Snook), arrives and different notions about honorable behavior prompt swordplay. The sequence where the statue of Elvira's father, whom Don Juan murdered, first comes to life also has a good pulse, and things get lively again when the statue (Price Waldman) returns to lead the awed but unbowed Don Juan to Hell.

Still, the occasional jolts that Sher provides aren't enough to give this Don Juan the glow of robust health. Some members of the cast help in the endeavor, some don't. As Sganarelle, John Christopher Jones looks uncannily like Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz -- it's the pushed up nose and the bedraggled wig, don't you know. (Jones also makes it clear this is a fellow who lacks de noive.) The reliable Nicholas Kepros brings his dignity to the role of a beggar whom Don Juan tempts to curse God, and also to the brief but vital role of Don Juan's outraged father. Graham Winton and Dan Snook are adept enough as Elvira's hot-blooded brothers even if they have to make entrances from the back of the auditorium, as do too many others. David Wohl earns a few chuckles as a prompter and also as a bewildered creditor, Mr. Dimanche. Sherri Parker Lee, Nicole Lowrance, and Anne Louise Zachry, as the various objects of Don Juan's disaffection, are only so-so. Less adequate than that is Liam Craig as Charlotte's jilted Pierrot.

The translation Sher uses is Christopher Hampton's. It's been tweaked to include, for one thing, the above-mentioned prompter. Maybe the title of the play should have been tweaked as well -- to Don Wan.

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