The Gold-Painted Plaster
Leg of Love
By Kevin Byrne
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.
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 iek, 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.