Dom Juan or The Feast with the Statue
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 16, 2008
Dom Juan is the first work by The National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA) that I have seen; I have heard lots of great things about this relatively young company, and so my expectations were set pretty high. What I looked forward to most was a rendition of this famous tale that would feel resonant and timely: one of the principal themes of this story is that Don Juan is an archetypal postmodernist, who believes that nothing has any meaning and that therefore he can do anything he wants without fear of consequence. What might such a theme contain for us in 2008?
Alas, NTUSA's Dom Juan is played for fun; what I was hoping to find in this production in terms of relevance is simply not on offer, and so my disappointment, though real, is also somewhat beside the point. Adaptors James P. Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood, director Jonathan Jacobs, artistic director Yehuda Duenyas (who plays the title role), and the rest of the NTUSA collaborators, have essentially done a 21st century burlesque on the Moliere play—burlesque in the sense of "mocking a style, class, or genre" (the definition is from The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre). It's the kind of show that you can have a lot of fun at once you're in on the joke.
Duenyas plays Don Juan as a self-involved, self-indulgent narcissist, without much in the way of shading or depth. He spends much of the play in various stages of dishabille, (ironically, I suspect). Another character has the (unfortunate) assignment of wearing only an apron, so that his bare rear end is frequently on display.
Duenyas's physicality is very impressive. Others in the cast have only limited opportunities to shine. Jesse Hawley, as Don Juan's servant Sganarelle, delivers her speeches at 100-miles-an hour. Ryan Bronz is funny as Don Juan's creditor M. Dimanche, and Aimee McCormick Ford is vivid as Don Juan's "wife" Dona Elvira.
The pace is breakneck throughout and the staging is in the round, surrounding the audience who are perched on small stools in the middle of the gallery space downstairs at The Chocolate Factory. (We're supposed to swivel on our chairs to follow the action as it moves around us.) The action unfolds very close to the audience in front of painted backdrops that depict various locales. Sometimes it's just too darned close for comfort, though: Don Juan's sword fight—with the brothers of the young woman he has stolen from a convent and deflowered—had weapons flying literally a foot or less from me; and the smells of incense and the sweat on some uncovered actors' bodies were more in-my-face than I would have preferred.
And though the use of the space in this particular manner does allow NTUSA's designers to surprise us with a pair of lush and impressively eye-filling sets on either side of the playing area (one is Don Juan's bedchamber, the other is a scary cemetery where he comes face to face with a Statue that challenges his basic assumptions about the meaning, or lack thereof, of life), it doesn't feel particularly organic or necessary; as there is ultimately no real audience interaction in the show (the way there is in, say, De La Guarda), I think the piece could be presented more comfortably for all concerned in a conventional proscenium arrangement.
Which is not to say the design isn't neatly realized—there's no credit for set design in the program, but costumes by Normandy Sherwood, lights by Ben Kato, and sound by Jody Elff are all well executed.
I hoped that the play's conclusion would pull the scattershot comedy together in a lucid way, but Don Juan's end is kidded in the same merciless fashion in which the rest of the play has winked broadly at Moliere. It's larky but, for my taste, ultimately not all that interesting.