At the Cultch until Jan. 26
Tickets: 604-251-1363, thecultch.com
From Mary Stuart through The Triumph of Love and more recently Waiting for Godot, Blackbird Theatre has had critics crowing this company’s praises since 2005. With a commitment to producing the classics, Blackbird Theatre filled a niche left empty when the Vancouver Playhouse decided to produce only “modern” plays.
And so, considering Blackbird’s excellent track record, I eagerly awaited Moliere’s Don Juan (written in 1665) in a new adaptation by the company’s artistic director John Wright.
Infamous as a highly-successful seducer, Don Juan — going back to a 1630 Spanish play by Tirso de Molina — has gone on to become an adjective describing an unscrupulous womanizer. Tirso’s libertine has been re-envisioned over the centuries by hundreds of poets, writers, filmmakers and artists from Mozart, Byron, Baudelaire and George Bernard Shaw to Ingmar Bergman and beyond. The role of Don Juan has been played by such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp.
But despite a handsome production with some superb performances, this Blackbird production strikes few chords. Perhaps a chill has finally settled in around Don Juan?
(The sleaziest contemporary reincarnation of Don Juan might be Charlie Sheen in TV’s Two and a Half Men and Anger Management. As the character Charlie in both shows, Sheen is perceived less as a dashing romantic and more as a scumbag.)
In this Blackbird production, adaptor/director John Wright creates a Don Juan who is neither charming enough to seduce us nor wicked enough for us to loathe. Peter Jorgensen, in a black ponytail and swashbuckling boots, looks dashing enough and executes some very fancy swordplay, but this Don Juan is smaller than life. It doesn’t help that several of the women he woos — Charlotte (Pippa Mackie) and Mathurine (Barbara Kozicki) — are so ditzy that who cares what befalls them? Kozicki, however, in the more serious role of Don Juan’s recently dumped wife Doña Elvira, is quite lovely. You can almost hear the audience silently applaud when she rebuffs Don Juan and gets herself to a nunnery.
In his program notes, Wright says he has borrowed freely from commedia dell-arte and “all that came before us” — and that includes farce. While Mackie’s portrayal, full of face pulling and swooning, is well executed it sticks out as an over-the-top farcical performance in the production. Sebastien Archibald, as Charlotte’s hapless betrothed, draws a much better line and gives us a sweetly loopy character.
Also way out on the farcical end is the fat, constructed “horse” that Archibald and Ted Cole (who also plays the statue of the Commander) ride around on. By this time, I really felt that Blackbird, drawing from “all that came before us,” had overloaded the boat, pushed it out too far — and it was sinking.
Don Juan is as much about Sganarelle, Don Juan’s long-suffering servant, as it is about Don Juan. Perhaps more. This is a terrific role for Simon Webb who strikes exactly the right note: Sganarelle is constantly — but very cautiously — nagging his master about his evil ways. Webb turns on a dime: placating then criticizing, twisting his words this way, then that. His character’s livelihood, after all, depends on knowing just exactly how far to go. We are caught not knowing whether to commend Sganarelle for his efforts or to condemn him for his complicity. But he gets the last word as Don Juan goes to Hell.
This is a big undertaking. John Webber’s set — a dozen or so marble columns — makes an appropriate setting. Marti Wright’s quirky masks and lavish costumes — especially a couple of the velvet gowns — are gorgeous. The music, including a rock Latin mass by Peter Berring, is resoundingly, ringingly grand.
But somehow, Don Juan does not feel relevant and in the end, whether the great lover goes to Heaven or to Hell doesn’t matter a whole lot.