Thursday, November 26, 2020

Don Juan in Zoom

It's hard to feel thankful in this current pandemic, with hospitals filling up, theatres shuttered, and half the country ignoring the measures that might help us open up again as a society. However, I do want to give thanks to the Washington Stage Guild, for their production of Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell that went live last night.

You can still watch the production on the theatre's YouTube channel, and it is very much worth watching. Nathan Whitmer plays the show's legendary lover, trapped in an infernal afterlife of stagnation. The short play was originally supposed to be a dream sequence in the mammoth Man and Superman, but when that show first opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 1905, management deemed it too long, and the entire third act was omitted.

Two years later, the Royal Court staged Shaw's dream sequence as its own one-act play, pairing it with another Shaw short, The Man of Destiny. Shaw wrote a program note for this production, explaining to the audience that hell is a state in which people are "given wholly to the pursuit of immediate individual pleasure, and cannot even conceive the passion of the divine will." Don Juan, unable to be satisfied by a life of self-indulgence, finds himself "suffering amid the pleasures of hell an agony of tedium."

At the beginning of the scene, Shaw calls for Mozart's music from the Don Juan opera Don Giovanni to be played. Next, Doña Ana enters. This is the woman Juan once dishonored, leading to a duel with her father. Emelie Faith Thompson plays the role brilliantly in the Washington Stage Guild production. She is shocked that she could be damned, and when she asks whom she can speak to in order to rectify the situation, Juan suggests she try the Devil. "In Hell," he tells her, "the Devil is the leader of the best society."

After much banter between the two, Doña Ana's father shows up, appearing as the statue of himself that dragged Don Juan off to hell at the end of Mozart's opera. The magnificent Bill Largess plays this role in the Washington Stage Guild production, remarking wittily of his form: "I am so much more admired in marble than I ever was in my own person that I have retained the shape the sculptor gave me."

All this is preliminary to the entrance of the great enemy of mankind himself, the Devil. Morgan Duncan is delightful in the role. The script calls for him to enter to some bizarre sounds in which "Mozart's music gets grotesquely adulterated with Gounod's" (presumably from Faust). The present production opts instead for "Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky, which was perhaps easier to find. 

The four-act Man and Superman generally does just fine without its third act, but has been performed successfully with it as well. Meanwhile, Don Juan in Hell has continued to have a life as a one-act of its own, and the current virtual production gives us a good idea why. Plus, the show is ideal for our current environment, where Zoom is fast becoming our modern-day equivalent of hell.