The Authentic Within Inauthentic Authenticity
I know many of you who read this blog have been wondering, “Where are all the foxy females that are legendary to Flux?” I mean, we’ve all read entries from those irresistible studmuffins Jason, Joe, Gus and (sigh) Isaiah, but I think it’s time we had un peu de pouvoir aux femmes in this blog. Alors, voilá: Sassy-c! This past Friday, I experienced The National Theatre of the United States of America’s version of Molière’s Don Juan—“a production so authentic that it rivals in authenticity Molière’s own 1665 production at the Palais-Royal in Paris.” Right...perhaps it was the two-foot plastic swords, the 75-minute running time, or Mozart’s (née 1756) Requiem Mass that made me question that claim.
But no matter—this is exactly the point the NTUSA wants to make. In their curtain speech, they reference this claim of “authenticity” and justify it by saying that the costumes are made with “authentic fabric”, the lines are spoken by “actual actors” and they say the words “exactly as they are written on the page.” And it’s this sort of tongue-in-cheek “F-you” to theatrical convention that defines the artistic statement of the piece.
We begin the show with a rousing musical number introducing the cast, each brandishing a golden phallus as they circle around us, the audience, who must swivel on our centrally-placed stools in order to take in all the entertainment. We then meet Don Juan, played by NTUSA member, Yehuda Duenyas, and follow his lusty tale of hedonism and vice in devotedly Catholic Sicily. Don Juan has the unfortunate penchant for luring young girls from their paths of honest maidenhood with promises of marriage, only to leave them in the cold when he tires of them. His latest “conquest”, Doña Elvira (played by Aimee McCormick Ford), left the convent to follow Don Juan and is now chasing him, begging him to profess his love for her (or at the very least, be man enough to own up to the wrongs that he has done). He, of course, callously tosses her off and sets sail with his unwilling servant, Sganarelle (Jesse Hawley), in search of more escapades. Along the way, he proposes marriage to local peasant girls and continues to flee in disguise from jealous husbands and vengeful brothers. It’s at this point that we see what may be Don Juan’s only selfless act in the whole piece: he aids a man who is being attacked by three robbers. The man he helps turns out to be one of Doña Elvira’s brothers, and when he discovers Don Juan’s identity, he lets him go free as it is the “honorable” thing to do.
We then move on to a tomb, where Don Juan jestingly invites the statue of a dead commander (a man he has slain) to dinner, who forebodingly accepts. Despite the warnings of Sganarelle, Doña Elvira and even Don Juan’s father, our shallow protagonist continues to live his life only to satisfy his selfish needs. As the play progresses, we see more and more that if Don Juan does not turn from his chosen path, he will only come to know damnation and suffering. At one point, Don Juan seemingly converts to the life of a monastic and renounces his sins, but we soon discover he is using the church as a disguise to continue his wicked ways. In the end, the dead commander invites Don Juan back to his tomb for another meal, but is instead swallowed up in the great fiery maw of hell. The final moment features a lonely Sganarelle, eerily lit by a single candle, crying in fear, not of the sudden loss of his master, but of the sudden loss of his wages.
If this production succeeds in one thing, it is to highlight the topical theme of religious and social hypocrisy prevalent not only in our time, but throughout the ages. None are exempt from scrutiny, as the valets, the peasants, the bourgeois, even Don Juan’s “victims” all display characteristics of a distasteful nature…it is just that Don Juan has learned how to attractively construe his vice into a “fashionable virtue”. Molière was a keen satirist and the fact that this production maintains a faithfulness to Molière’s social criticism makes it more authentic than 17th century fabric and impeccable French pronunciation. And how authentic a piece was Molière intending to create? His play was produced in French 1665; a Castellano version was produced 30 years earlier in Spain and the original Don Juan is an Italian legend (Don Giovanni) based on a 14th Century fictional libertine. In the end, it’s not facsimile that creates “authentic” theatre—it’s the ability to move with the flux (ha-ha) of the times and still create art that speaks to someone.
As for this performance, director Jonathan Jacobs demands a lot from his audience as we are squeezed onto tiny (and sometimes painful) stools and are kept on our toes as the staging swirls around us. However, the high energy cast keeps the pace brisk, and the incredible sound design by Jody Elff (one of the highlights of the show), lighting by Katie Ruben and scene construction team took me to convents, forests, echoing tombs and lavish love pads, all with a simple 90 degree turn on my stool. Mr. Duenyas as Don Juan certainly has stage presence and looks as if he was ripped from orgies featured in Abercrombie ads. And Jesse Hawley as Sganarelle has her moments of comedic flair. In truth, I liked the idea of casting a somewhat androgynous Don Juan and a female Sganarelle, as this could have provided an opportunity to display how seductive a beast Don Juan can be, to men and women alike. However, this production did not really see this idea through. The moments that spoke most to me were when it seemed like Don Juan might almost be swayed to see how his hypocritical actions were hurting those around him. This was portrayed honestly by Ryan Bronz as Don Carlos, brother to Doña Elvira, who seeks out Don Juan to kill him, but will not break the code of honor when his enemy saves his life. Matt Kalman as Don Luis, Don Juan’s father, also gives a stirring performance as he begs his only son to change his ways, then violently rips away his patronage when he sees that he is not reaching his selfish boy.
There is much to offer in “shock value” in this piece, including the aforementioned golden phalli, bare-bottomed servants, a grotesquely real statue of Christ on the cross, and many acts of sexual simulation, often times played upon a mannequin’s leg and pelvis. But for me, it was the tangible moments of human connection, conflict and hubris elegantly played with the social commentary (along with the gorgeous sound design) that struck a chord within me. At these times, I found an authenticity within the NTUSA’s inauthentically authentic production.