George Bernard Shaw imagined hell as an amusement park dedicated to licentious pleasures. While there may be "quite enough reality on earth," the "horror of damnation," he says through his mouthpiece, Don Juan, is that "nothing's real" in hell. Unfortunately, the horrific dreariness of reality intrudes into the Medicine Show's production of Shaw's dream play within a play, Don Juan in Hell, the self-contained third act of his Man and Superman. Dona Ana, an old flame of Don Juan's, is a fresh arrival in hell. She meets her former lover and her deceased father, an ex-military commander who is visiting from heaven. The devil calls and tries to convince Juan to switch places with the commander so that hell can have a new catch. Acidly eloquent monologues ensue about the nature of love, marriage, and the meaning of life.
The famous libertine, weary of endless sensual indulgences, decides he prefers the contemplative life of heaven. For some reason, the devil changes her mind and protests Juan's decision. But any dramatic conflict is secondary to the witty banter in this comedy of ideas that resembles a Platonic dialogue in the way Juan gets all the best lines.
Director Alec Tok appears to have made a deliberate choice to stage Shaw's philosophic reverie utilizing Brechtian dramaturgy. On the surface, this makes sense because Shaw is in many ways the English Brecht: both playwrights wrote "epic theater" that emphasized didactic arguments, often at the expense of action, in an effort to engage their audience's intellects and further social—and often socialist—causes. In addition, Shaw's dream play concocts an atmosphere of brittle illusions, which seems to make it suited to the distancing effect that was Brecht's goal. Brecht wanted his audiences to see the illusion of theater as an illusion, and not mistake it for some "naturalistic" reality.
The problem is that Tok stays on the surface; his use of Brecht's dramaturgy is superficial and distracts our focus from the depths of Shavian meditations. The play, for example, "breaks the fourth wall" for only an instant—when the devil hands a random audience member a dollar bill to demonstrate the allure of mammon. It almost works. But the gimmick takes attention away from the alluring sophistry, which is the heart of the play.
Likewise, the costumes, while well constructed and imaginative, led to confusion. Juan wore a codpiece, multicolored tights, and a troubadour outfit complete with plumage and ruffles, while the commander was adorned in a mink thrown over World War I gear bespattered with inexplicable, Pollock-like drips of yellow and gray. More disconcerting yet was the fact that he had silver glitter smeared on his face.
Tok and costume designer Uta Bekaia attempt the radical juxtaposition of styles that Brecht urged, but the effect is baffling. The bafflement was most likely intentional: a superfluous nonspeaking actor enters and exits at odd moments wearing a new costume each time, from cross-dressing in a French maid outfit to parading as a Roman soldier.
Moreover, while elaborate Brechtian masks are used, they are rapidly dropped with little change in the characters' voice or action to denote any transformation, thus nullifying their effect.
While many of Tok's attempts to set Shaw's play to Brecht's directorial music may seem interesting, at least theoretically, the production flounders because of more basic reasons: overzealous blocking and emotionally callow acting.
During the play's long monologues, the actors engage in incoherent and distracting behavior. The audience is never given the chance to focus on the intellectual gymnastics when the characters halfheartedly toss pillows, pantomime animals, or—in one of the most egregious scenes—pretend to give birth to a helmet. It's as if Tok, afraid the audience will be bored by Shaw's speeches, overcompensates with too much action. Yet the transitions between scenes stultify with moments of dead air.
The least ingratiating aspect of this production, though, was the cliché-ridden acting. Brecht proposed a theory of acting opposed to Stanislavsky's, which relies on the interiority of deep, primal memories. Brecht's theory proposed that actors articulate a series of controlled and highly stylized gestures. The actors in this production, however, displayed neither naturalistic emotion nor stylistic control in their movements. They travestied the subtlety of the text with the banality of their unfeeling expression. With the occasional exception of Peter Judd, who played the commander, they wallowed in overwrought melodrama throughout.
The entire play came to a fitting conclusion on the night I saw it. A prop malfunction caused the climactic unveiling of heaven to be delayed. As Mark Dempsey, playing Juan, fidgeted with a curtain, he came out of character for a second to shrug apologetically to the audience.
If Shaw—or Brecht—wanted to disabuse us of the possibility for human transcendence, he couldn't have hoped for a more earthbound production.