Audience Comment about Don Juan Giovanni

The American Repertory Theatre is proud to support other non-profit organizations in its community. We do work with Barry Andelman of the AIDS Action Committee of Boston giving them tickets to performances. Barry sent along the following comment he received about Don Juan Giovanni:

We had a VERY enjoyable, sometimes side-slapping, evening. We definitely want to see Figaro as well.

The curtainless stage shows us a very simple set, EXCEPT for the working car, which will keep driving around during the action. The performance opens with a low-key, side entrance by Sganarelle, who is anything but low-key in the intense, lengthy sharing of his world views, including a critique of Don Juan’s morals. The actor (and co-writer), Steven Epp, leaves us immediately sympathetic to his character, with fine acting and excellent diction. (Of course, as in all these high-powered, fast-moving farces, we lose many of the lines. But good actors with elegant body language keep us in touch with the plot and with their characters. We are only sorry to be missing some of the great jokes and literary allusions.)

Don Juan appears, and the great, almost endless ride begins. The simple stage is extended by ingenious use of a video screen, first just to suggest road travel and various venues. As more characters — including Don G. and Leporello appear — and the plot thickens, the screen changes to offer enlarged close-ups of the very characters who are on stage. This gives us an optimal view of their meaningful facial expressions; it even extends our understanding of the audio, thanks to the modest, pre-conscious face-reading abilities that support many of us in a noisy world. The close-ups are particularly useful as the new characters break into song.

As the cast grows, so does the music, which was present from the beginning, thanks to a highly effective piano-string quintet. Actors move seamlessly between talk and song. The Mozart melodies bring pleasure and a kind of release; despite their dramatic content, they offer a kind of relief (from the rapid-fire action) similar to the comic relief given by Shakespeare’s clown in a graveyard.

We are not familiar with the Moliere, so we don’t know how much Don J. and Sganarelle have been enriched; but Don G. and Leporello are the same as the Mozart, only more so. And of course everything is updated to contemporary dress and morality (if any). The second act seemed to move more slowly than the first, despite the familiar, intricate complexity of the story line. The dialogue waxes more philosophical, to include “What is the meaning of life?” challenges. My guess is that the existential chat lacked some of the moralistic drama of the Mozart opera precisely because the modern-day cast and viewers are less convinced that Hell exists (outside this planet).

The inevitable finale is presented with the same low-key staging (though we all know that the A.R.T stage offers trapdoor solutions). This leads me to the overarching flavor of the production, which the program notes made pretty clear even before the “curtain” didn’t go up. The visiting Jeune Lune troupe invented and created these two productions, a few years earlier, in Minneapolis. They are doing two plays in rep, five performances a week, with the same cast in both productions. Clearly Don J. G. was written to call for a modest stage and a sterling set of talents, which they all bring to the production.

I did think initially, based on the character names and the first act behavior, that the Moliere folks talk and the Mozart folks sing. But near the end of the second act, and during a charming post-play musical encore, it became clear that everyone can sing, at the operatic level. And by the way, Dominique Serrand, the director and video designer, also plays (and sometimes sings) Don Juan.

In short, I was blown away by their tour de farce — their ambition, their energy, and their flexible talents are magnificent. And it’s not pure farce, either. SEE IT!

Nanni Feurzeig, Newton, MA

-Nicholas Peterson

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One Response to Audience Comment about Don Juan Giovanni

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