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Moliere's "Don Juan," National Theatre of the United States of America, 2008.
The Gold-Painted Plaster Leg of Love
By Kevin Byrne


Don Juan
By Molière
The Chocolate Factory
5-49 49th Ave.
Tix : (212) 352-3101







The wine was real; the acting was not.

The National Theatre of the United States of America's (NTUSA) production of Molière's Don Juan at The Chocolate Factory is another one of the company's brilliant exercises in authentic fakery. NTUSA delighted in showing the audience their calculated plasticity, which has been their overriding aesthetic concern since their inception in 2001. Their shows are not steeped in Brechtian alienation or poststructuralist posturing; their artful tackiness pushes the acting and design elements to vacillating extremes, leaving the audience figuratively and sometimes literally in the middle. This was the NTUSA's first time working with an existing script (which, according to the program, was taken "from every available translation to date"), and the company found a wonderful foil in Molière, an artist whose use and mockery of artifice are exemplified in his preening anti-hero Don Juan.

I was enthusiastic about their previous show Abacus Black Strikes NOW! and worried about whether the company would be hampered by a classic text. Fortunately, I was mistaken. In Abacus Black, zombies were roaming the earth and a troupe of manic messianic actors was trying to recruit people in their search for the City of Gold. Thematically, the play was about fear and the desperate search for security. The zombies of that show were an uncompromising force that by necessity caused the remaining humans to adopt an equally recalcitrant position to countermine them. In Don Juan, the company moved from the walking dead to the walking id.

Before the show began, the audience was treated to complementary wine, served in plastic cups by silver-wigged footmen standing in the foyer near the box office. The cups were refilled as the audience seated themselves in the low-ceilinged downstairs theatre at The Chocolate Factory. Audience members sat on small backless stools in the center of the room and were surrounded on all four sides by the backdrops of the play's various locations. As the action progressed in the fast-paced intermissionless show and the actors scampered between different scenes, the audience pivoted on their seats to follow along.

After the wine and before the Molière, there was a prologue followed by a profane dance number. Both conveyed the company's attitude toward the script they would be dramatizing and traumatizing. Stepping from behind a curtain to address the assembled was company member James Stanley, speaking to us as Dick Pricey, though why he had to adopt a pseudonym was not clear. Dick Pricey was emissary and emcee, advance man and apologist, for company and production. He stressed the NTUSA's exhaustive efforts to make Don Juan as "authentic" as possible--his protestations of historical faithfulness in the face of the already evident fakery elicited laughter from the tippled crowd. "What is authenticity?" he asked rhetorically as a way of defining the efforts of cast and crew. "We're American, we don't speak French" was his rather obvious explanation of why they weren't performing in the original language. The accents throughout were cartoonish or non-existent.

I found the name Dick Pricey clever for two reasons. It alluded to Richie Rich, the cloying comic book-moppet of the supermarket aisle, and the show's scenography might have drawn inspiration from it. Also, "Dick Pricey" is a punning synonym for "Expensive Penis," and as soon as his preamble was finished the company performed a herky-jerky dance number while waving around golden paper-maché phalluses. (The sound design, a mix of classical music and guitar rock, was by Jody Eiff and Yehuda Duenyas.) The wine had put everyone in a good mood and the dance set the stage for the lusty hedonism of Don Juan.

The plot and overall course of the production remained faithful to Molière. There was a thinning of both speeches and dialogue, but no scenes and few characters were cut. Molière, like Tirso de Molina before him and W. A. Mozart/Lorenzo Da Ponte after, centers his story on the rapacious and unrepentant Don Juan, who lusts after chaste women and then abandons them. He is relentless in his efforts at seduction, using all means from honeyed words to outright physical violence. In the end, the only thing that hinders this libido incarnate is the animated statue of a soldier he killed--pure sexual drive stopped by stone retribution. The NTUSA production, however, through its staging and acting, undermined the moralistic condemnation of the anti-hero.

National Theatre of the United States' production of Moliere's "Don Juan," 2008.The arrival of Don Juan (Yehuda Duenyas) in the panoramic playing space was a remarkable pantomime. Carrying a rose that he fondled, sniffed, chewed on, and eventually handed to a female audience member, he assumed he was the irresistible object of our attention and affection, when talking, standing around, or stripping down to his purple underwear for a quick spritz of perfume. Throughout the play, he strutted and posed and received the audience's adulation in the blasé manner of the truly arrogant--Mick Jagger crossed with Michelangelo's David. After his self-assured entrance, a plaster mannequin leg emerged through the curtain next to him, painted gold and sheathed in a sheer black stocking. He caressed the leg and began sucking on the toes as it suggestively waggled in front of his face, all without taking his eyes off the audience.

The leg was a perfect emblem for the production, in which so much was directed toward the two-dimensional and plaster-like. The absurdly shallow acting area meant that the actors addressed each other in profile. The fight scenes were accompanied by cartoonish sound effects of sword swooshes and fist smacks. The cross-dressing of actors was signified by incomplete details: a penciled moustache here, a falsetto voice there. And the acting style could be charitably described as intentionally bad Method.

The fakery of the production was not layered parodically upon the play; the rampant hypocrisy of human nature is part of Molière's project and was accentuated by the NTUSA. Take, for example, the two scenes between Don Juan and his spurned lover Dona Elvira, played by Aimee McCormick Ford with a Norma Desmondish, ready-for-her-close-up intensity. Dressed in a tattered wedding dress that failed to hide her hickeys, she demanded that Don Juan lie about why he abandoned her; it was her wish to remain deluded about her situation, however briefly. For her second appearance she was garbed in a burlap robe and clutched a rosary. Having rejected worldly cares, she was ready to walk the penitent's path--a radical conversion that took place over the course of a single day. (In a moment of vulgar heresy, Don Juan dropped the rosary into his purple g-string.) Other characters were exposed in their own quotidian greed and lust after encountering Don Juan, the paragon of solipsism. The peasant woman Charlotte (Normandy Raven Sherwood) didn't really love the local rube to whom she was betrothed, and was easily seduced by Don Juan's wealth and sexuality. Even Sganarelle, in many respects the voice of Don Juan's conscience, played people false when in disguise and bilked a creditor. Most revealingly, after Don Juan was taken to purgatory (surrounded by dancing devils with plastic pitchforks), the only lament from Sganarelle was about the loss of his wages.

Don Juan himself is the uncorrupted corruption that is the cornerstone of this production. Slavoj Žižek, writing about Don Giovanni, speculated that its title character "accomplishes something that can be properly designated only as a radical ethical stance." That is, Don Juan maintains his unrepentant attitude even in the face of certain torment, and his radical evil should be appreciated for its purity. That is the attitude NTUSA took toward him and they accorded the same respect to the zombies of Abacus Black. The fallibility of people, striving and contradictory people, is celebrated in these productions. Even the Sisyphean attempts at authenticity by the company show a humanity underneath their very disingenuousness.

Late in the play, the leg made a second appearance in Don Juan's boudoir. As he awaited the arrival of the statue whom he had invited to dinner, he danced with the fake limb and dry-humped it. As a counterpoint to the stone guest (as embodiment of heaven's judgment) and Don Juan (as exemplar of earthly appetites), we were given a gold-painted plaster leg.


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