Casanova. Lothario. Bill Clinton. Among the world’s famous playboys, the figure of Don Juan holds a special place in the theatre. Faction of Fools, DC’s premiere commedia troupe, have taken a stab at adapting a classic version of the Don Juan story. While Molière’s Don Juan features strong performances across the board, the production as a whole doesn’t quite hang together.
Based on Jean-Baptiste “Molière” Poquelin’s 1660 play Dom Juan, Faction’s version of the text is pretty faithful to Molière’s plot. Don Juan (Sun King Davis) arrives in town with his servant Sganarelle (Charlie Retzlaff, in a role originated by Molière himself) on a mission to woo a peasant girl. But Don Juan’s past continually returns to haunt him – the jilted lover, Donna Elvira (Bess Kaye); her two angry brothers (Hannah Sweet, Kaye); his other peasant infatuation (Sweet) and her boyfriend, Pierrot (Matthew Taylor Strote). At home, the hits keep coming in the form of disappointed father Don Louis (Sweet), foppish creditor Dimanche (Strote), and an overabundance of furniture. Of course, that’s before the actual haunting: a living stone statue of the dead Commander whom Don Juan humiliated and slew.
The guy can’t catch a break, you know?
But with all this fodder, Director Matthew Wilson doesn’t seem to be able to build a cohesive structure. There’s a strange lack of urgency in the dramatic side of the material, and there’s never a real feeling that the events occurring are consequences of Don Juan’s past actions. In the end, it doesn’t seem that Don Juan did anything to deserve his final reward. Much of the fault lies in a script that tells much more than it shows, leading to long bouts of exposition and introspection that do nothing to advance the plot. In other Faction productions, this verbal looseness establishes camaraderie with the audience, or builds a mood; here, there’s the feeling that Sganarelle is stuck with the unenviable task of covering for a costume change. Striking a half hour from the show would do a great deal to keep the action moving and keep all the funny bits from being spaced so far apart.
Which is a pity, because there’s also a lot to like in the production. The cast is uniformly fantastic, the physical comedy is hilarious (if occasionally slow-paced), and there’s a lot of great wordplay spread through the script. Faction lists lead actor Sun King Davis as a “local favorite,” and he seems deserving of the title. As Don Juan, Davis is smooth, resonant, gallant… aside from the minor detail that he’s a horrible human being, Davis’s Don Juan is eminently likeable. As the put-upon servant Sganarelle, Charlie Retzlaff is the moral center of the piece and manages the difficult task of being believably frustrated with and fond of his master. Filling out the majority of the roles, Bess Kaye and Hannah Sweet are particularly elastic in their portrayals. Servants, old men, young gallants, and peasant women are put on and doffed as easily as someone else might switch hats. Kaye does a particularly fine dramatic turn as Donna Elvira, although it often seemed that she had wandered in from some other, more serious and demanding play. As Pierrot and the Commander’s Statue, Matthew Taylor Strote steals the show during some of the funniest scenes in the whole piece. In turns both ominous and hilarious, Strote’s work as the Commander shows that Don Juan is fully capable of reaching great heights.
On the production side, Klyph Stanford’s work on the set, lights, and projections deserves special mention. Flanking the central doors are two “paintings” – actually projection screens – that shift throughout the play to establish setting or provide emphasis to the characters’ speeches. The screens are ingeniously used for the main fight scenes as well, with the action appearing to take place backstage in silhouette. It’s an elegant and ingenious way to transform the space at a moment’s notice.
And yet, with all that going for it, Molière’s Don Juan isn’t as good as it could be; the structural and pacing issues weaken an otherwise great show. The play is funny rather than hilarious, interesting rather than compelling. I’d be interested to see Faction of Fools return to the script down the line, because the cast proves that there’s already a lot of good material in it. With a bit of reworking, Don Juan could be a worthy successor to Molière’s original.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.
Molière’s Don Juan plays through October 6, 2013 at Faction of Fools at Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium Theatre – 800 Florida Ave NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-838-3006, or purchase tickets online.
‘Portraying an Icon: An Actor’s Reflection on Playing Don Juan’ By Sun King Davis.
Culture, Class, and Morality in a Whimsical ‘Don Juan’ at Faction of Fools by Matthew R. Wilson.