This is Not a Review: Don Juan (Blackbird Theatre, January 2013)

I can’t quite get a handle on Molière. It’s definitely me though, not him. I think what happened is that somewhere way back, early on (not even sure where or when), I got it into my head that Molière = “classic” French theatre = French bedroom farce in the style of Feydeau or similar…so I go to see his plays subconsciously expecting ridiculous romantic entanglements and mistaken identities, slapstick humour and overall light-hearted shenanigans – and then I sit there feeling jarred by the fact that the comedy is actually satire, and pretty dark at that…the kind that you laugh at because it’s clever and true and familiar, and you also flinch a bit in recognition of the cynicism and rage in it.

However, leaving aside my own problems of expectation, here are some of the things I really enjoyed about Blackbird Theatre’s production of Don Juan:

**The projections that opened the show. I’ve been noticing as I compile these posts that I seem to have a bit of a thing about beginnings…how they set the tone for the show overall, draw the audience into the world of the play, etc. Projections, in my admittedly limited experience, are really hard to do well, especially on the kinds of budgets that most Vancouver companies can scrape together…unless they’re very basic and straightforward, it’s all too easy for them to fall short of the magic they’re intended to convey. It was exciting to see an exception to the rule here; the show began with a duel, Don Juan fencing with a ghostly anonymous swordsman who flickered to life on the white pillars that stood like tall trees scattered across the upstage third of the playing area. The projection jumped from one pillar to another, disappearing as if hiding and then reappearing in another spot…it was a very cool visual effect, and in retrospect became interesting foreshadowing of a few different story or character threads: e.g. the way Don Juan is always fighting a duel with someone, whether it’s with words or swords… and the shift towards supernatural that the story takes towards the end, with the General taking his revenge from beyond the grave.

**The acting, across the board. Peter Jorgensen’s take on Don Juan felt quite…contemporary to me, rather more physically contained than I imagine an accomplished courtier of Louis XV’s time would have been, but still believably charismatic, always the smartest person in the room, always so in control – so that the moments when he did seem to lose his grip a bit were very powerful. Simon Webb was doing what felt to me like a more classic “Put-Upon-Servant-in-a-Farce” thing with Sganarelle, and doing it really well – he was so funny, but he also kept the character recognizably human throughout (not just a foil or a vehicle for snarky asides to the audience), mostly by showing us how Sganarelle actually really did care about his master, in a messed up sort of way.

I also thought Barbara Kozicki was lovely as Dona Elvira – I got a really clear sense of a woman who had let herself lose control in the past and was now paying full, fullest price; in all her scenes with Don Juan you could feel her white-knuckled grip on herself, interspersed with flashes of volcanic emotion and, in the end, a core of hard-won strength. I was definitely rooting for her. Ted Cole played a number of small roles, but I was particularly impressed by his portrayal of Don Juan’s father – he was bombastic and oppressive in the way that fathers often are in these kinds of stories, but also managed to convey great dignity and profound emotion, especially towards the end; his delivery was an interesting contrast to the beautifully expressive, simultaneously silly-and-creepy commedia dell’arte mask that he wore throughout. Finally, Pippa Mackie and Sebastian Archibald were hilarious as the silly young peasant couple; not sure if I was misreading, but to me they had a distinct Newfie flavour (at least, Newfies as portrayed on the Air Farce, for example)…which, if that’s in fact what they were aiming for, is an unusual Canadian-stereotypes take on the country-bumpkin comedy trope.

In general, the the show wasn’t a straight period piece, but rather seemed to be a sort of patchwork of styles and influences, possibly to match the fact that, according to the programme notes, John Wright’s adaptation drew on every extant version of the tale for inspiration. The set – chessboard floor, tall columns, a few bits of vaguely 17th-c.-looking furniture including an adorable spinnet, and a spooky chapel/tomb/monument set piece – had a stylized period vibe, but then there were flashes of commedia dell’arte (including a couple of amazing masks) and the occasional completely unclassifiable but hilarious design choice, such as the ridiculous, riotously colourful knight-on-horseback costumes worn by Dona Elvira’s brothers. Similarly, the incidental music ranged from a rock-n-roll choral mass (commissioned especially for the production and used to open the show and cover transitions) to excerpts from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, performed in-scene by the actors at various points. Since Peter is possibly best known locally as a performer and director of musical theatre, it would have been a major missed opportunity NOT to take advantage of the fact that he’s an accomplished singer – and I thought the stripped-down acoustic arrangements of the songs he sang, accompanying himself on guitar, were really effective. Simon had some pretty funny business on the spinnet too – talk about multi-talented.

Anyway, it started me thinking about adaptations, and then stylistic decisions more generally. This production did feel a bit uneven to me – but then I think, well, pretty much any artistic piece is a patchwork of its influences and the artist’s own vision…some pieces just hide the seams better than others. Maybe there’s value in letting them show, to remind us that they’re always there? Doing a Don Juan that appears not to commit consistently to any one style of theatre or characterization might actually be a way to shine a light on the common threads that run through all the different versions of the tale. I’m not sure it’s the best way to tell a compelling story…but perhaps that doubt is, like my confused feelings about Moliere, as much about my own expectations as an audience member as anything.

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