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The Rake in Hell 

Marin Shakespeare's Don Juan is strong in everything but its lead

Wednesday, Aug 6 2003
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The legend of Don Juan has been tweaked so many times since Tirso de Molina wrote the first play about him in 1630 that Molina himself -- a monk -- would be scandalized if his own hero came back from hell to say the unholy things other writers have put in his mouth. What seems to fascinate the best revisionist writers -- Shaw, Mozart, Molière -- is not sex so much as the idea of damnation, or ungodliness. For a couple of centuries Don Juan served almost as a barometer of religion in the West; we got a new version every time the weather changed.

The original was simple and Catholic: A womanizer flouts God and goes to hell. A generation later, Molière posed him as a cheating hypocrite who changes his image, but not his ways. Hypocrisy is the going fashion, he says; why shouldn't I drape myself in piety? Then came Mozart (with his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte), celebrating profane freedom over dutiful priggishness, and Shaw, who reversed the very definitions of heaven and hell.

In some ways, Molière's rendition is still the most interesting. He wrote it in 1665 for a few funny reasons. First, he needed a hit, and translations of Molina's play were doing well in France. Second, his Tartuffe had just been banned; the French conservatives of the day couldn't stand a satire of phony religious men because most of them were phony and religious. Third, the conservatives had support from Spain, through a relative of the king. Molière saw his chance to write a play about a popular hero that could remind people of Tartuffe and stick it to the Spain-loving reactionary bastards.

A seditious impulse to stick it to conservatives lies behind Robert Goldsby's production of Don Juan for the Marin Shakespeare Company. For the first two hours we get the standard, period-dress tale of a rebel pursued by the offended family of his most famous conquest, Donna Elvire, until the statue of her dead father comes horribly to life and threatens him with eternal damnation. Suddenly, Juan converts. "What?" says his servant, Sganarelle. "But you don't believe in anything. Now you want to come off as a good and sincere man?" "Why not?" says Juan, played by Rudy Guerrero. "The role of a good and sincere man is the best part to play these days." He strides up and down the stage, addressing the audience to make sure no one misses the (barely concealed) point. "This is the way a successful politician adapts himself to the evils of his time!"

Within a few minutes Juan sinks into the fires of hell.

The effect is not as electric as it must have been in Molière's Paris, but it's not bad. The main reason it works is the strength of Guerrero's supporting cast. Thomas Lynch plays a nervous, bug-eyed Sganarelle, the sidekick who can't criticize Juan's lifestyle without fearing for his life. Lynch hams it up beautifully, but his speech against Juan's nihilism also has a bumbling earnestness. "No matter what you say," he declares in a trembling voice, "there is something marvelous in man." The speech works because Sganarelle seems so un-marvelous.

Darren Bridgett also does well -- in fact, he upstages everyone but Lynch -- as Pierrot, a poor bumpkin rival to Don Juan. "God alive," he says, when he learns that Juan has seduced his fiancee, "I ain't a-feared a' nobody," and goes after the libertine with a log. Bridgett finds a voice and manner for Pierrot close to an early Robin Williams character (like Popeye?), and the play gallops whenever he's onstage. He also turns in a fine straight-man performance as Don Carlos, the nobleman looking for a duel to avenge Elvire's honor.

The trouble is that Rudy Guerrero can't quite fill the shoes of a carefree Don Juan. He's too aware of himself, sometimes too affected in his frilly-wristed costume and tall black boots. The scenes that deal almost meditatively with Juan's soul are strong -- like his nighttime encounter with an honest poor man -- but Guerrero doesn't throw enough conviction into the flamboyant scenes to make them powerful (including, unfortunately, the hypocrisy speech). Compounding this problem is the overly stiff statue, played by Ben Knoll. I know he's meant to be stiff, but his recorded lines come awkwardly from offstage while Knoll tries to coordinate his movements, and the result is a not very frightening piece of statuary.

Don Juan was a hit for Molière; it did so well that Louis XIV had to ban it. (But the king secretly enjoyed the jab at the Spain faction, and gave Molière's troupe a royal pension.) Goldsby's production in San Rafael isn't as big a deal -- it won't attract the notice of government goons -- though it does show how modern Molière still is, and how satisfying it can be to watch hypocrites go down to their just reward.

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