The Ladies' Man 'Don Juan': A mostly female team is bringing Moliere's tale of the ultimate seducer to Center Stage.

October 08, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Don Juan. You know the guy: Mr. Love-'em-and-leave-'em. The ultimate lothario. Lust incarnate. The master of the one-night stand. But what happens when this theatrical character falls into the hands of an alm" is how dramaturg Catherine Sheehy describes it. But at the same time, Sheehy, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Drama, insists, "[Director Irene] Lewis is not interested in bashing Don Juan. This is not Irene's revenge. It's not suffrage. It's really art."

The art she's referring to is Moliere's "Don Juan," one of the 17th-century French playwright's rarely produced scripts, which opens the season at Center Stage Wednesday.

While serving Moliere's art, the "dames" do appear to bring a distinct perspective to the telling of the tale.

Costume designer Candice Donnelly believes women tend to see Don Juan from their own point of view -- "the way we're being cheated on, how we're being betrayed, how we're being misused. You take it as a personal offense. But in this case, for me, you see it from the angle of, 'He just doesn't get it.' "

Similarly, director Lewis says, "I think there is an understanding that we all start from. Since most of us have experienced it first-hand, we start from that."

Although the women may have had their way -- metaphorically speaking -- with Don Juan, their approach stems from Moliere, who created a character that differs in several significant respects from the stereotype.

For starters, Moliere's Don Juan is older -- near the end of his powers as well as his life. More to the point, he doesn't accomplish a single seduction in the course of the play (though ** not for lack of trying).

Initially, Lewis was even concerned that J. Kenneth Campbell, the actor playing the title role, was too "conventionally good looking."

Hearing this, Campbell -- who last appeared at Center Stage as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in Ted Tally's "Terra Nova" more than a decade ago -- says, "[Lewis] said to me, 'Marlon Brando at 350 pounds could play Don Juan because there's something magnetic about the man.' What is it Henry Kissinger's wife said, 'Power is sexy'?"

The power Moliere focuses on has less to do with seducing women than with Don Juan's "absolute indifference to societal censure," according to dramaturg Sheehy. "It's about his flouting of convention -- of marital convention, of authority, of religion."

In other words, this is a play about Don Juan, the rebel.

For set designer Kate Edmunds, this meant exploring the consequences of defying God. "Don Juan is not really punished until he defies God directly," she says. "And I find that an issue curiously sidestepped when we think of the more flashy aspects Don Juan. Sex is much more interesting to most people than religion."

That flashy archetype was created by a Spanish monk who wrote under the name of Tirso de Molina. His early 17th century play, "The Trickster of Seville and the Guest of Stone," introduced the character of Don Juan as a profligate despoiler of women. The "Guest of Stone" refers to Don Juan's chief adversary: the statue of a character called the Commander, whom Don Juan murdered. In the play, the statue comes to life, confronts Don Juan and exacts vengeance.

The Don Juan story proved immensely popular, generating versions in genres ranging from Italian commedia dell'arte to German puppet theater. The best known version is probably Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Hollywood has also been attracted to the myth, starting with a silent 1926 swashbuckler starring John Barrymore and continuing all the way through this year's "Don Juan DeMarco," starring Johnny Depp.

Moliere version

If Moliere's "Don Juan" is less well known, it's partly because his play was quickly withdrawn in his native France, primarily due to objections to its impiety. The next recorded production came two centuries later, in 1841, when the play was revived by a young French actor-director. This, in turn, led seven years later to its long-delayed debut at the Comedie-Francaise.

Moliere's Don Juan, the character at Center Stage won't resemble any of his traditional predecessors. Instead, says costume designer Donnelly, he'll look like "a cross between 'Viva Las Vegas', Mick Jagger, the '70s and the late 17th century."

That means the costumes are "interpretations of both modern clothes and period clothes. Even though the cut of them is kind of modern, they're not exactly what most people would wear," Donnelly explains. Since Don Juan is an aristocrat, his clothing -- which includes loose, open-necked shirts as well as a chartreuse brocade robe -- is "beautiful, very indulgent" and brightly colored, she says.

Campbell, the actor playing Don Juan, originally grew a beard and mustache for the role. But Donnelly concluded his mustache was too light to show up on stage, "and if he dyed it, he'd look like Robert Goulet. . . The best thing, I thought, would be if you cut his hair like a Rod Stewart bleached blond aging rock star look. It's also something women go for."

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