Stage review: PICT turns ‘Don Juan’ into a dark fantasy tale
If Quentin Tarantino had written the story of Don Juan, it would be a lot like the haunting play at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre: a revenge fantasy for used and abused women against the devil who defiled them.
Payment has come due in “Don Juan Comes Home From the War” and for a legendary love-’em and leave-’em guy, it’s proving more brutal than four years on Germany’s side of the battlefield. His name is never uttered, but we know from the title that the man of the hour is of the type made famous in story and song, the fictional seducer of scores of women, a man who would never use a door when there was a window to sneak through.
The episodic drama by Odon von Horvath and adapted by British playwright Duncan Macmillan is having its second production and American premiere in Pittsburgh. The original has held a fascination for others since its appearance in 1939 and includes a faithful translation by Christopher Hampton and a second new adaptation, “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq.” In Mr. Macmillan’s play, the setting is true to the original — a Berlin in shambles just after the first World War. The homecoming starts as a man hellbent on reliving the past and quickly evolves into a journey of fear and loathing and a moving target of themes: the guilt of a surviving soldier, women’s roles in post-World War I society, the regrets that come with age, the roles of heaven and hell in the face of abject amorality … All are revealed in a series of unpleasant encounters adding up to a mostly dour experience.
It’s 1918, and the don of legend is feeling his age. He’s alternately trying to reclaim his reputation as the great seducer and swearing he just wants to be good, but failing at both. The city that was his playground for sexual conquests now is filled with brokenhearted women who have lost husbands, fathers and sons, and it’s their turn to pounce.
We meet Don Juan exposed except for a strategically placed helmet, cavorting with naked women during the last days of the war and raising a cheer to “Life! Love! Lust!” He’s about to find that he’s not what he used to be, and neither is Berlin. As one woman observes of the chaos and cruelty around her, “Where are the occupiers? We are doing this to ourselves.” In the midst of partying, Don Juan suffers an attack of “soldier’s heart” and is taken to a hospital, where he’s stabbed by an irate mother, and he carries that literal wound through the rest of the play.
The heavy burden of the don’s woes is carried by David Whalen, well known to Pittsburgh theatergoers from a wide range of roles, most recently as a butler in PICT’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” That was upstairs in the Stephen Foster Memorial’s Charity Randall Theatre, where he was wrapped in the finery of Victorian England. “Don Juan Comes Home From the War” is downstairs, at the in-your-face Henry Heymann intimate space and here Mr. Whalen gets down and dirty.
The playwright and director Alan Stanford have called on the actor to stroll deep into the dark side of a narcissist’s psyche while taking a beating. Don Juan is slapped around by nuns and humiliated by prostitutes. It’s fascinating but uncomfortable to bear witness to the actor as he throws himself full tilt into a character capable of hurling expletives at God in one moment and declaring his eagerness to repent in the next.
The six actresses who transform into numerous roles challenge Don Juan as he seeks the girl he jilted, the one who might have saved him from himself.
The most affecting encounter is between Don Juan and a woman from his past, now a widowed mother who is dressed as Rosie the Riveter and about to lose her job to returning soldiers. Played by the estimable Nike Doukas, she alone seems to make a dent in his hardened heart. She has a young daughter (Karen Baum) to care for and despite her own troubles, she offers the promise of a little kindness. For this woman he recalls as a lovely figure skater, Don Juan will try to be good — or will he?
Lissa Brennan makes four transformations in the course of the play, including as a nurse desperate to use Don Juan after years of forced abstinence and who, with a fellow prostitute (Melinda Helfrich), degrades him for a money-making scheme. Gayle Pazerski also does quadruple duty, and Catherine Moore hits the mark as an authoritative landlady and abbess.
The episodic journey occurs in fits and starts on a diamond-shaped stage littered with props and against a tiled backdrop with “auf Wiedersehen” scrawled across it. Set changes are accomplished by the actors in awkwardly paced slow motion, and it took several minutes to get to the second scene as water from a bathtub emptied slowly through a grating in the floor. Let’s hope that will get tighter as the play progresses. Costumes run the gamut from fully realized to conceptual, although there is no mistaking the “Flying Nun”-style cornettes worn by the nuns.
Former PICT artistic director Andrew Paul chose “Don Juan Comes Back From the War” as part of PICT’s “Season of Scandal,” and this play piles onto the theme by including the ravages of war on the losing side. It’s a provocative, disturbing way to spend two hours without intermission, and when the end arrives, you’re not off the hook. You’ll be interpreting the final scene as you make your way up and out of the darkness.
First Published August 13, 2013 12:00 am