— Production photo
The tale of Don Juan has been told many times, from its 17th century Spanish original to better known versions by Molière, Mozart, Byron and Shaw. Seducer, swordsman, and unrepentant atheist, Don Juan seems a natural for the next pop cultural hero. Who should play him in the Tarantino movie. Tom Cruise? Daniel Craig? Johnny Depp?
Blackbird Theatre, Vancouver’s premiere classical company, is presenting Molière’s 1665 play in a new adaptation by artistic director John Wright. At the preview performance I saw, it hadn’t figured out yet what it wants to be.
Blackbird’s Don Juan is a dashing figure--Peter Jorgensen in long black ponytail and flamenco heels. He opens the show swordfighting two-dimensional enemies projected by Tim Matheson on the neoclassical pillars that make up the set. All the characters we meet in the episodes that follow are two-dimensional: the women Don Juan seduces, the men who want revenge, beggars, peasants, his aristocratic father, and a merchant.
They nearly all wear commedia dell’arte masks (in striking designs by Marti Wright, who also created the rich array of costumes). The masks indicate types rather than individuals. In the end Don Juan is sent to hell by a mute golden statue of a man he has killed. Not much room for character development there, either.
That’s not to say the secondary characters lack theatricality. Unmasked, Barbara Kozicki brings powerful dignity to the role of Don Juan’s spurned wife Doña Elvira, and Sebastien Archibald makes an adorable lovesick Pierrot despite a bizarre Newfoundland accent. Ted Cole uses his voice to great effect behind the mask of old Don Luis, disgusted by his son’s unrepentant behaviour. Cole also has the play’s comic highlight as Elvira’s vengeful brother Don Alonso, cantering in on a horse he wears around his waist. All the commedia devices should work as well as this.
The fully developed characters are Don Juan and his servant Sganarelle, played by Simon Webb with his usual great sly charm. The actors’ challenge is to find variations in the repetitious structure while carving out their characters’ subtleties. Only a few scenes vary from the formula: Don Juan wittily seducing two peasant women at once (Kozicki and Pippa Mackie), talking his way past a debt-collecting creditor (Sebastien), and avoiding fighting Elvira’s angry brothers.
Otherwise, every scene has someone—often Sganarelle—trying to convince Don Juan to change his evil ways. And except for a late, faked repentance, in almost every case Don Juan responds with cynical laughter, scorn, or a new seduction.
Webb’s Sganarelle walks a fine line, lecturing his master on ethics and religion until threatened with a beating or worse, then cleverly placating Don Juan until the next time. Sganarelle spends a lot of time just watching, and Webb’s expressions provide complex commentary on his own inner battles between amusement, amazement, and moral disgust.
Jorgensen’s Don Juan is less transparent. He finds women irresistible but loses interest the moment after each conquest. His ambition is to seduce “the whole world.” Combined with his skills as lover and swordsman (we don’t see much of the latter after the opening sequence), and his outspoken theological skepticism, he should make an absolutely fascinating anti-hero.
But Jorgensen’s very contained Don Juan doesn’t show us much. We’re left to decide for ourselves whether to see him as existential rebel, critic of the pieties and hypocrisies Molière lambastes in his other plays, or as an object lesson in the punishments immorality brings on itself. A clearer sense of the character would make him and his story more compelling.
Jorgensen, along with Webb, shows off impressive instrumental and vocal skills in brief snatches. But I’d trade those moments for a little more swashbuckle and a Don Juan I could love.