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Review: ‘Don Juan Tenorio’ at GALA Theatre

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While Don Juan, the character, is a recognizable archetype of insatiable lust, the GALA Theatre’s Don Juan Tenorio, is an elegant, at times humorous, meditation on the psychic toll abject narcissism takes on an entire community, especially when those most affected either reject, or do not fully understand, the darkness lurking in themselves.

In this world premiere version of Jose Zorrilla’s classic tale of the dangerous libertine, Don Juan (a man with seemingly endless resources, no responsibilities, and no conscience), Spanish playwright Nando Lopez’s adaptation, directed by GALA veteran Jose Carrasquillo, retains Zorrilla’s rich, evocative Romantic Era verse, while paring the text to its most timeless, and thus contemporary, elements, allowing all the characters to feel recognizably modern.

The story begins on the night of Carnavale, the traditional start of Lent, the season of repentance. Shadowy, even seamy sorts engage in revelry around Don Juan’s sometimes gloomy, sometimes smoldering villa, artfully rendered by yellowish and red lights, and the spare set with its pervasive, low-lying veil of smoky haze. Inside, the man of the manse is alternately working on his latest ploy for seduction, and ruminating over a perceived slight by his rival Don Luis. When Don Luis arrives to settle the score and share the tally of dead men and deflowered women in his wake, it looks as though Don Juan might lose. The prospect enrages him, so he places another bet, setting in motion a path of death and destruction. “When it comes to winning, he is capable of anything,” Ciutti, his servant, warns at one point.

As the plot funnels toward its resolution over whether the rapacious Don Juan is redeemable, along the way we are presented with the internal challenges of those whose lives he either disregards or destroys. These interlocking personal journeys force an examination of whether redemption is even possible in the absence of clarity around evil’s power to excite us.

Left to right: Inés Domínguez del Corral, Iker Lastra, Paz López (front), Peter Pereyra (back), Luz Nicolás (Back), and Manolo Santalla (front). Photography and Lighting Design by Christopher Annas-Lee.

The almost pitch-perfect ensemble cast surrounding Iker Lastra’s flawlessly fiendish Don Juan give us many glimpses into this dilemma. GALA company member Manolo Santalla, with his upright bearing, is well-cast as the imperious Don Gonzalo, father to Doña Ines. He breaks her betrothal to Don Juan when, through a deceptive act of his own, he hears Don Juan proudly recite his litany of depraved acts, including murdering dozens of men and raping as many or more women. Don Gonzalo self-righteously professes outrage over Don Juan’s many sins, yet does not examine his own perpetration of psychic violence through cloistering his daughter, first, and marrying her off, second, without her consent.

Don Luis is played by the almost feral Peter Pereyra, a GALA regular with impressive stage combat skills rooted in his strength as a dancer. Don Luis bets Don Juan that he cannot seduce his fiancé, the sexually frustrated Doña Ana, played by a perhaps too-reserved Paz Lopez, only to find she has her own mind and will bed whomever she chooses, ultimately resulting in Don Luis’s own death.

Don Juan’s two amanuenses, the delightfully waspish Brigida, played by GALA company member Luz Nicolas, and Cuitti, played with physically comedic perfection by GALA’s Carlos Castillo, are themselves schemers whose witty asides and shrewd observations indicate they are aware their treachery in service to Don Juan has the potential to devastate. While this does not deter them, it indicates their presence of mind and sets them apart from their master whose own treachery is more elemental.

For them, evil is a choice; as is made clear in the end when they are the only two not held in purgatory by their connections to Don Juan, the implication being that they chose to be malicious, and so could also choose not to be malicious, and so could be forgiven.

But for Don Juan, whose own father (also played by Castillo, who rounds out his yeoman’s effort with a third role as the keeper of sculptures in the Pantheon of Souls) denounces him, declaring that he has had nothing to do with creating such an evil man, the question to consider is: was Don Juan just born evil? This would mean it is in his nature, not a choice. Since he is patently undisturbed by his evilness, can he truly be saved?

Left to right: Manolo Santalla (back), Iker Lastra and Peter Pereyra (front). Photography and Lighting Design by Christopher Annas-Lee.

Zorrilla’s original Don Juan text was penned at a time when the presence of a “soul” essentially was accepted as fact. This was problematic in that it often meant persons with mental illnesses that caused them to act in frightening ways, such as with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, were considered to have “tortured” souls, possessed by Satan. Today, science has proven there are fundamental biological reasons for such behaviors, and that neither choice, nor Satan has anything to do with it. This, too, is problematic, if we want to believe in Lopez’s version which implies Don Juan’s salvation is assured as he ascends an ethereal stairway at the show’s conclusion. To accept this outcome requires we believe he ultimately is so disturbed by his calamitous behavior that he chooses to change. The evidence, however, favors that he simply was born a monster.

The text as it is both spoken in Spanish and as it is shown in English surtitles, is rife with Don Juan’s abject self-pity and fury over having to bend to Tsappaso any other force than his own. There is not a moment of remorse, not when confronted with the piety of Doña Ines whom he has just raped. His insistence on becoming a slave to her goodness is dubious, and when it does not result in immediately getting what he wants he shouts at God and kills Don Gonzalo and Don Luis whose crimes in that moment amount to nothing more than proximity to his rage.

There is yet no remorse years later when taunted by the souls of those he has killed, now lurking in the Purgatory that is the Pantheon of Souls where Don Juan arrives one night, having been mysteriously away for years, and now increasingly deranged with anger and disbelief when he discovers that Doña Ines is among the dead. Instead, he tosses off remonstrations to God making every single offer of compliance conditional on his triumph: “Never will you humiliate my valor!”, while also demanding the deal be on his terms, “You will not deny me time to repent.”

The resolution to the question of whether evil can be healed is found in Doña Ines’s own acceptance of how the evil in her is stirred by him. First, she reframes what the church has taught her is evil – her desire to be consumed by the flames of passion. Don Juan has seduced her, deceived her, raped her, but it has touched something in her that is real. She is aware of its complexity, as her exquisite monologues make plain: it is base, it is exciting, it is passion, it is knowledge, and she will own it, and in fact will use the very awareness of its existence to purify herself and thus will not cause others pain by remaining ignorant to her own hidden agendas, as they have all burned away in the flame of her acceptance of what is. This proves more powerful to her than all her cloistered instructions in the church; in her conscious focus on herself, she provides the natural foil to the id that is Don Juan.

Whether Don Juan chose evil or embodied it, and thus could or could not actually be redeemed is irrelevant. The bigger point is that when we accept the totality of what a self contains, including the potential for evil, we are free to be in peace, such as was Doña Ines, who symbolizes this acceptance by making a pact with God to take Don Juan to heaven with her.

Contrast this with the souls left in Purgatory, unable to admit the truth of how they allowed themselves to be used by Don Juan, how they projected on to him what they could not own in themselves: self-righteous anger, arrogance, desire for autonomy, power over others. This only led to their suffering.

During a post-performance discussion with the audience, Lopez, winner of the 2016 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Play for his adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma, which also premiered at GALA, characterized his interpretation as a feminist take on the original. Although the show does offer nuance to female characters left one-dimensional by Zorrilla, this is a deceptive claim, as the show does not hammer upon any overtly political themes. While it might be easy to draw parallels between GALA’s Don Juan Tenorio and current political figures, the intense pathos and sensitivity of the show offers us a chance to examine our own role in the evils we so often want to blame on others.

This show is a triumph, from its eerie lighting by Christopher Annas-Lee, unobtrusive set design by Giorgos Tsappas, to the quirky yet appropriate costuming of Jeffrey-Jay Peavy whose tongue-in-cheek choice to put Don Juan in a smoking jacket while prowling around his hell-like home was not lost on this reviewer. Carrasquillo and Lopez make a good team, drawing from the actors and the text everything there was in each, and yet not a sentence or a gesture too much.

GALA Theatre deserves credit for the quality productions it provides the Washington, D.C. community. In a comfortable and intimate setting, it offers Washington, DC-theater goers access to international professionals at the height of their careers, including those such as Lastra, who is well-regarded for his film and television work in his native Spain. Similarly, GALA shows offer opportunities to be thrilled by up-and-coming talent such as Dominguez del Corral, whose graceful portrayal of Doña Ines gave this show its wings. GALA Theatre’s Don Juan Tenorio is not one to miss.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Don Juan Tenorio plays through October 1, 2017, at GALA Theatre – 3333 14th St. NW, in Washington D.C. For tickets, call (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online.

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