Whether or not you have a specific literary reference to ground your knowledge of the “Don Juan” character type (Moliére’s Dom Juan, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the version by Byron or, heaven forbid, as portrayed by Johnny Depp) it’s likely you know what Don Juan is famous for: he’s a notorious womanizer, a libertine, a seducer of women of all ages, and, despite (or perhaps because of) the pleasure he takes in women, a misogynist down deep. In Duncan Macmillan’s very loose adaptation of Ödön von Horvath’s play, we encounter a Don Juan in later middle age, returned from service in World War I, suffering from a failing heart and something of a crisis of identity. Having sex in his weakened state could kill him, his nurses tell him: but if he can’t be a lover, what is he?
The action begins with an orgy and ends in a graveyard; in between, Don Juan (David Whalen) seeks the girl he left at the altar at the dawn of the war. The play unfolds in a series of loosely connected episodes: the protagonist moves through a series of scenarios and events in which he seeks forgiveness, redemption, and a sense of his place in what is clearly a changed world. It’s also a world that consists, at least from Don Juan’s limited perspective, solely of women, and the real truth of this play lies in its exposure of what this character becomes to the women whose company he craves when the shutters fall. In a nifty reversal of objectification, one of the twenty-one nameless female characters who populate the play calls him “the most famous penis in Berlin;” realizing that sexual pleasure is the only thing he has on offer, his former and future objects of seduction are quick both to recognize his utter uselessness and to punish and abuse him on that account.
Some moments of the play carry more punch than others. The scene at a convent, where Macmillan (with the hindsight of history) has von Horvath’s Don Juan predict the Catholic Church’s collusion in fascism (connecting their rejection of sexuality with an impulse to impose conformity, rules, and ascetism on others) carries a high-voltage intellectual and emotional charge, and it’s the one moment in the play in which we see Don Juan unleash the psycho-sexual magic that turns women to jelly in his hands. Other scenes feel preachy, as when the Mother (Nike Doukas) harangues him about what “real love” entails (sticking around, listening, doing the hard work of relationship building, yadda yadda), or unmoored, as when two prostitutes (Melinda Helfrich and Lissa Brennan) force him to pose for pornographic photos. Later it occurred to me that there was a stations-of-the-cross-like quality to the play’s structure, with each episode serving as yet another stop on Don Juan’s journey; but in the end the Gestalt of that journey remained frustratingly elusive.
Stylistically, the production feels very “German” (if I may be permitted to draw on my experience of modern German theater to label it thus), and the overall design, look, and feel of PICT’s production is superb. The design team – Narelle Sissons on set and costumes, Allen Hahn on lighting, and Joe Pino on sound – have created a dissolute, disintegrating playing space occupied by suitably disheveled and at times desperate characters, and director Alan Stanford has guided his ensemble into a playing style that clearly belongs to the visual and aural world of the play.