A group fond of exclamation points, the National Theater of the USA (NTUSA) endeavors, at the very least, to give its audience a grand show. In their production of Molière’s Don Juan or the Feast with the Statue , which is perhaps as authentic a revival as Don Juan is honest, they definitely succeed in rousing the audience—to laughter, if nothing else. In previous collaborations, the collective’s fresh and feisty spirit produced highly experimental original works, but here it is used to “reanimate” a “dusty” (or, classical) text. It is a testament to the wide-ranging talents of the group’s members (in particular, their comic sensibilities) that they manage to update Molière’s very funny text in unexpected and innovative ways.
In a playful introduction by Dick Pricey, self-proclaimed “Star of the NTUSA,” James Stanley asks the audience to imagine itself as the royal court of Louis XIV, for whom the play was originally performed in 1665. At that time, Don Juan was not a success. Considered offensive to the church and to France itself, it was pulled after 15 performances, and even after considerable editing, did not receive positive attention. It was only performed in its uncensored form in 1884 (about 200 years after Molière’s death).
Performed today, the play hardly seems the stuff of serious criticism. Indeed, the play’s fantastic conclusion, in which the title character is sucked into hell, abandons the notion of moralistic resolution. Rather, the hypocrite’s comeuppance gives his servant, Sganarelle, the chance to end the play with a ridiculously flippant joke about his lost wages. As with the play’s finale, NTUSA’s adapted version of Don Juan exploits every blasphemous comment and inclination in order to try and shock a modern audience. Since Moliere ruthlessly mocks any aspect of life that one might take seriously (e.g. religion, marriage, gentleman’s honor), the play does not aim to have much of a purpose beyond entertainment. In that sense, it is the perfect show for a group that likes to provide the audience with a “spectacle.”
With great gusto, the group consistently takes Moliere’s comic impulses a step further: Don Juan is a preening diva with a glitter tear frozen on his cheek, trailing ribbons of satin in his wake, and keen on dramatic entrances (complete with sexy Spanish music). In the role, Yehuda Duenyas is arresting, with the audience at his fingertips (sometimes quite literally: an extended rose was tentatively accepted by more than one audience member).
Don Juan’s erotic self-obsession is best displayed in a strip tease, which leaves Duenyas clad in only a tiny pair of purple bikini underwear, shamelessly titillating a gilded mannequin leg. The scene takes place in the private lair of Don Juan, which is bathed in a lurid red glow. It is the sort of place where barely clothed menservants prance about, worshipfully waving palm fronds. The whole scene calls to mind Tim Meadows’ Ladies’ Man character, if that invention had any kind of wit.
The coherence with which this giddy rendition is performed is largely due to the obvious rapport between the actors, as well as to the professionalism and skill each actor brings to the stage. Jesse Hawley steps into the unenviable shoes of Sganarelle, and plays an appropriately foolish foil to Duenyas’s Don Juan. Even though her character exists for the greater glory of his master, Hawley stands out for her ability to pull off Sganarelle’s complicated, nonsensical speeches, and the surprising shock of a man surrounded by the shocking.
In the past, the group has won awards for set design, and there is no shortage of clever effects in this production. The audience is placed at the center of the stage, which forces it to move according to the whims of Don Juan, following his fancies just as the other characters do. The set that surrounds the audience consists of simply painted backdrops. The lack of realistic sets or props contributes to the ridiculous and playful effect of the show. Another humorous device is the use of sound effects. Designed by Jody Elff and Yehuda Duenyas, the sound often reinforces the cartoonish stage play, with arcade game punching sounds and inappropriately timed splashes.
NTUSA has constructed a delightful confection with their “reanimation” of Don Juan , containing the layered sweetness of exaggerated entreaties, frivolous costume, ridiculous sound effects, and delicious bawdy humor. The production never missteps—it is consistently a light and fun entertainment, in which every attempt at moralizing is thoroughly mocked. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would have a bad time at the show; after all, who could resist the charms of Don Juan?