`Don Juan' doesn't romance audience

Review: George Bernard Shaw's play never quite approaches heaven.

November 08, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"I tried to see it myself once and nearly died of it," George Bernard Shaw said of his play, "Man and Superman." A tough work to produce -- though definitely one of Shaw's best -- the four-act comedy is often staged without its lengthy third-act dream sequence.

That sequence, which goes by the title, "Don Juan in Hell," has frequently been staged alone, perhaps most famously in a production that toured for two years in the early 1950s starring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead.

Fell's Point Corner Theatre has also chosen to isolate "Don Juan in Hell," and the results are variable. In the dream sequence, the principal characters in "Man and Superman" are transformed into their counterparts in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," strains of which punctuate the scene.

Instead of singing, however, Shaw's characters talk -- and talk and talk. Don Juan is criticized by the Devil himself for "the intolerable length" of his speeches.

But words are action for Shaw, and the trick is to convey the vibrancy that makes the words come alive. This is especially challenging in "Don Juan in Hell," which is essentially a four-person debate -- or as critic Eric Bentley has called it, "a Shavio-Mozartian quartet" -- thrust in the middle of a romantic comedy.

The debate covers a host of big subjects: life, death, love, beauty, politics, religion, and the difference between men and women, to name a few. Like the rest of "Man and Superman," one of the cleverest things about "Don Juan" is the way the playwright reverses our expectations.

Far from being life's ideal reward, heaven is so dull, even the Statue -- played by a convivial Bruce Godfrey dressed in a white suit painted to resemble marble -- voluntarily opts for the more amusing and comfortable realm of Hell.

"Hell is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues. All the wickedness on earth is done in their name," explains Don Juan, whom Shaw envisions as more philosopher than philanderer. The play's most loquacious character -- and in this play the competition is fierce -- Juan is portrayed by Mark E. Campion, who earns extra credit for persevering through a slew of long speeches without stinting on his character's bulging ego.

As to the Devil, who boasts, "It is universally admitted in good society that the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman," he is played by Steve Oldham with unctuous grace reminiscent of Frank Langella.

The quartet is completed by Lynda McClary's Dona Ana, who epitomizes Shaw's theory of the predatory woman, motivated by the "life force" to perpetuate and improve the species -- motivation exemplified by the enthusiasm McClary expresses when Ana learns of Nietzsche's concept of the Superman.

All four characters are symbols, created by Shaw to exaggerate the personalities and thoughts of their alter egos in "Man and Superman." It's difficult to make an audience care about a symbol, and Fell's Point Corner's production is unable to surmount this difficulty.

Much of the problem lies in Steve Goldklang's static direction. Though Goldklang has a facility for comedy, and even farce, in this case he has all but forgotten the importance of getting his actors up on their feet and moving. Instead, he frequently has three actors seated in chairs while the fourth stands and declaims.

"How he does talk! They'll never stand it in Heaven," the Statue says of Don Juan, and indeed, despite some impressive efforts, this entire production never manages to be heaven-sent.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 28. Tickets are $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7838.

Dissecting a family

Eric Bogosian and Center Stage dramaturg Jilly Rachel Morris will present a free discussion of Bogosian's play, "Griller," at 7 tonight at Bibelot's Canton location, 2400 Boston St. An account of a dysfunctional suburban family, "Griller" will make its East Coast premiere at Center Stage Nov. 18-Dec. 19.

The discussion program, titled "Theater Chat," replaces Center Stage's previous noontime lecture series. The discussions are held the second Monday of each month -- except December -- at various Bibelot locations throughout the area. Here's the rest of the schedule: Jan. 10: Local poets talk about Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" (Bibelot, Woodholme).

Feb. 14: Love Songs of Ireland, a Valentine's Day preview of "The Hostage" (Bibelot, Timonium).

March 13: Resident director Tim Vasen and the cast of "Macbeth" discuss why the Bard is bigger than ever (Bibelot, Cross Keys).

April 10: "2.5-Minute Ride" -- A look at oral histories of the Holocaust (Woodholme).

May 8: Meet the yet-to-be-chosen successor to Center Stage's longtime managing director, Peter W. Culman (Cross Keys).

All the discussions are free and begin at 7 p.m. For information call 410-332-0033.

One-act comedy at AXIS

The Playwrights Co-op will present a staged reading of Joe Dennison's short one-act play, "Arresting Al (Pacino)," at AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, at 7: 30 tonight.

An offbeat comedy about a young man being interrogated by the police about the accidental death of his wife, the reading will be directed by Lee Sapperstein and followed by an audience discussion.

Admission is free. Call 410-243- 5237.

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