Moliére’s Don Juan
by John Stoltenberg
On top of the antic hilarity in Faction of Fools’ new production of Moliére’s Don Juan, I had the funny feeling while watching this company’s work for the first time that I’d been a fool for having avoided it. What got me in the door was actually not its distinctive Commedia dell’Arte performing style; in truth what had kept me away was my preconception about that style.
Mainly I wanted to see Don Juan the play. I wanted to see how Molière’s classic comedy about a feckless cad and serial seducer of women would play today.
Times have changed. We are very unlike the playgoers in 17th-century Paris whom Don Juan first scandalized. However leeringly they might have found alluring Don Juan’s rapacious behavior, they also would have found it reprehensible on religious grounds (or at least they all knew that’s what their church expected them to do). But we no longer live under a uniform doctrinal thumb. As a culture, we’ve pretty much flipped that one the bird.
Then again, times have not changed. The womanizing character of Don Juan, which played for so many laughs and life lessons so long ago, still fascinates. Today he is EveryStud. Or EveryPrick. Depending upon your point of view.
Molière has a well-deserved reputation for delivering laughs. Even on the page in a good modern translation, there are riffs and ripostes and ribald one-liners that still amuse and surprise—as between Don Juan and his faithful servant Sganarelle (who knows his boss is up to no good), or between Don Juan and his jilted wife Donna Elvira (who gets the dude’s number, too). It’s as if Molière knew all along that he was toying with his audience’s conflicting Saturday-night and Sunday-morning personalities (to reference Dick Morris’s famously apt characterization of Bill Clinton, an observation with which Monica Lewinsky reportedly agreed). Way back there in 1660, Moliere cast the irresistible bait of his priapic protagonist before upscale patrons at the Palais Royal theater, then pulled a sanctimoniously punishing switcheroo. Molière’s Don Juan comes to a rather bad end, which it would be no spoiler to reveal: The horndog goes to hell.
Now, I know I may be taking a comedy way too seriously here. But hey, that’s my schtick: focusing on life and art with double vision. Besides it’s the true backstory for the extraordinary theater-going experience I discovered in my first encounter with Faction of Fools.
My wary preconception, which fell flat on its tush, was that Faction of Fools would be shallow. All slapstick and silliness, no smart substance. But dang was I wrong.
For starters there’s the set: a classy-looking art museum hung with classic paintings and bracketed by well-loined statues. Two large paintings on either side of double doors upstage center turn out to be projections. And during the action in writer/director/choreographer Matthew R. Wilson’s immensely inventive rendition, these two screens serve to show, as if activated by actors’ pantomimed clickers, other classic paintings and images that punctuate scenes with visual punch lines. (Later in Act One these screens serve to show spectacular sword fights in hysterically funny shadow play.) The artworks’ historicity has a cumulatively enthralling effect. Given Don Juan’s probably-porny-for-its-time treatment of women, for instance, all the classical paintings that pop in of the female form serve to frame the story, and its ample humor, so we can perceive it and enjoy it free of contemporary pandering and prurience peddling. I cannot say whether that intent was what prompted Klyph Stanford’s utterly brilliant scenic, lighting, and projection design. But the overall conception is so intelligent and illuminating that I look back on my expectation of shallowness with chagrin.
Wilson’s script, an adaption that takes more liberties than the eponyomous libertine, is a ceaselessly silly mashup of pop culture and original plot. In Molière, Don Juan’s incessant sleeping around is always prefaced by nuptials—making him a bigamist yet saving sex for marriage. (Bawdy Saturday, lawdy Sunday.) Wilson keeps this story point but executes it with howlingly funny flair: He has Charlotte, the lothario’s latest lovely, break into “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Don Juan and his lackey Sganarelle then join in—and all three dance à la Beyonce! Wilson also throws in learned allusions to high culture. When the clown character Pierrot is suddenly heartbroken because the ingenue of his dreams is getting snogged by Don Juan, he sobs silently to an operatic sample from Pagliacci.
So silly yet so smart. The perfect theatrical synthesis of highbrow and lowbrow. All of which accounts for my newfound admiration for the Faction of Fools unique esthetic and performing style. (They’re already much acclaimed, I’m just late to the party—last year they got the Helen Hayes/John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.) The company doesn’t just dust off Commedia dell’Arte; it reanimates, reinvigorates, and reinterprets for our time a centuries-old connector between players and people. We’re very used to seeing Commedia’s populist techniques all over—in everything from sketch comedy to satire reviews, movies to YouTube: stock characters, broad physical comedy, fast-paced action, wicked-good wordplay. Faction of Fools does all that and more. We see the actors in tradition-inspired masks, which (not unlike Halloween) gives them and us complete permission to act out in ways we might not ordinarily dare, but that give us a good glimpse at something primal we all share. Call it our Saturday-night and Sunday-morning selves. And sometimes we just gotta have a good laugh together about that.