The seduction begins even before the actors appear, as a sensuous female voice bids theater-goers to switch off their phones. And it isn’t long before Don Juan (James Cusati-Moyer DRA ’15) steals the stage. His voluptuous desire is uncontainable, and spills off-stage as he flirts with ladies in the audience.
In this latest production of “Don Juan,” director Andrej Visky DRA ’15 breathes new life into Molière’s Baroque prose comedy. The social criticism of 17th-century France lurks in the background, and Visky trains the spotlight squarely on Don Juan’s insatiable thirst for pleasure.
We meet Don Juan, naked apart from the white towel around his waist, boasting of his romantic conquests. Extraordinarily free-thinking, he makes a mockery of social norms and religion. He coldly dismisses the distraught Elvira (Jenelle Chu DRA ’16), a beautiful nun who succumbed to Don Juan’s advances before the play’s start. Laughing at her piety, he plots to conquer “new worlds.” His hapless servant Sganarelle (Aubie Merrylees DRA ’16) has some scruples and tries to restrain him, but in vain. Don Juan is the ultimate manipulator, and he usually gets his way with a choice selection of charm, threats, and slippery logic. “All women have the right to be loved, and who am I to deny it to them?”
Cusati-Moyer lifts the play up with his audacious portrayal of this seductive scoundrel. He brings alive the many facades of Don Juan’s personality, from his contemptuous daring to his animalistic desires. He takes joy in leading others to sin and delights in exposing human fallibility. In one memorable scene, Don Juan, draped in a rich orange cape but otherwise virtually naked, growls as he crawls after his father, who has just disinherited him.
The costumes are one of the production’s highlights. Sydney Gallas DRA ’16 makes some bold choices, especially when it comes to Don Juan, but rarely overdoes it, and the costumes make their point without being ostentatious. And Visky adopts a minimalist set, effective in focusing attention on the story’s human drama. He experiments with digital visual effects: Images and text are projected onto three huge panels that surround the stage. The experiment has hits and misses, unsurprising for a fledging director. But a scene in which moving ghostly portraits stare down on Don Juan’s dining hall certainly makes an impression, creating a sense of disorientation and oppression.
Don Juan’s romantic pursuits nearly lead to disaster multiple times. Towards the beginning of the play, a storm ravages his ship, and he is saved by Pierrot, a comic character who is good-natured but deeply insecure. (Don Juan promptly seduces Pierrot’s fiancée, pulling out a ring and securing her hand in marriage.) Later, Don Juan eludes Elvira’s vengeful brothers and desecrates their father’s tomb. He ridicules the statue that stands over the tomb and invites it to dinner. Unexpectedly, the statue accepts, and the play reaches its climax as Don Juan challenges the heavens (and the statue) with a false bravado. But the production ends ambiguously, leaving the audience to ponder his fate: Don Juan, naked and alone, curls up in the center of the stage, and the lights go out.
Cusati-Moyer is supported by a cast of seven actors from the School of Drama. Merrylees in particular does a commendable job as Sganarelle, adding a healthy dose of humor to the production. At points, however, he throws in witty comments when silence might have been more powerful.
Don Juan captivates under Visky’s direction. Co-writing this adaptation with Brendan Pelsue DRA’16 and Samantha Lazar DRA ’15, Visky gives the play a visceral feel, and the constant tension between desire and self-restraint is palpable. While not all jokes land and some philosophical musings meander, the play keeps up a good momentum and leaves the audience with much to consider.