Don Juan Comes Back From the War | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Don Juan Comes Back From the War




BNC Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

The original Don Juan was the son of a prominent 14th-century family in Seville who worked hard to develop his infamous reputation. His death was poetic justice: after killing the commander of Ulloa, whose daughter he seduced, he was lured into a Franciscan monastery and slaughtered by the monks.

Don Juan's life and death furnish no plea for the pleasures of promiscuity. Nor do the two best-known dramatic treatments of the legend, Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto for Mozart's Don Giovanni and the "Don Juan in Hell" episode from Shaw's Man and Superman. (Though Shaw, with typical perversity, sends him off to heaven.)

Don Juan Comes Back From the War, by the Hungarian-born German playwright Odon von Horvath (1901- 1938), is another sardonic take on the philanderer's fate. A 90-minute script rich with terse scenes that flow quickly if not smoothly, this protofeminist version of the legend underlines the hollowness of love talk. The play's disillusionment and irony reflect Horvath's favorite theme--the sadness of life and the treacherous sentimentality under which people hide their intentions.

Horvath imagines Don Juan as a soldier returning from the horrors of World War I to a land where "even in the most banal sense of the word all values are dislocated." Fleeing the nihilism of the war, this retro-romantic seeks the one love of his life, the woman he jilted because he preferred sensation over fidelity. Certain that his fiancee remained faithful, he pursues her, unaware that she, broken by his betrayal, died two years before.

But for him libido is fate. Instead of looking for the anchor for his soul, he's distracted by a series of women, each of whom reminds him of his "beloved." But as always, when one romantic idealist aches for another, only the fantasies intersect. When these women, clinging strenuously to their own obsessions, fall short of his ideal, he has the perfect excuse to abandon them.

Don Juan first seduces a bisexual designer away from her lesbian lover--his way of gaining entry to the art-gallery world--then betrays her, leaving her despairing and suicidal. Though admitting that he's no good for women, he goes on to attract both his landlady and her teenage daughter--and to kiss and dismiss her older daughter, an earnest socialist who follows an authentic credo. The younger daughter falsely accuses him of molesting her, but Don Juan's reputation is so bad that no one believes he's innocent. Finally returning to the home of his fiancee, he learns that his ideal is dead. He dies tasting his lie.

This is BNC Production's second offering, in a crisp translation by Christopher Hampton, adaptor of Les liaisons dangereuses. The production radiates Horvath's dark humor and draws fine performances from an ensemble of eight women who play 35 roles.

In the title role Tim Decker is challenged to play a man who refuses to connect his actions with his bogus idealism. At first shy and reticent, he turns ruthless when he can't find his ideal love, though we know he'd destroy her again if he did. In BNC's staging, by Meighan Gerachis and Karen Kessler, Decker suggests that double standard by emoting with breathless ardor: it looks heartfelt but stinks of insincerity. He adds to that a distractedness that seems meant to pass for Don Juan's longing for his lost love. Decker is handsome enough for the role, but he doesn't give Don Juan the killer instinct that's needed to explain his casual cruelties. And Decker's too-pleasant, almost burned-out Casanova doesn't quite register the guilt-stricken pain he must feel when he finally faces his self-deception.

Among the fine supporting actors Elaine Carlson, as Don Juan's main victim, rages well against the dying of her love. Maggie Carney brings tense dignity to the part of the socialist daughter who is kissed off. And Carol Eggers is heartbreakingly poignant as the young girl so disturbed by Don Juan's looks that she imagines she's been ravished. The rest of the cast convey a rich range--hard-bitten women who believe "ideals are for men," little girls who symbolically attack a snowman, ladies who lunch and scheme, even a vengeful 76-year-old grandmother.

Like his contemporary Brecht, Horvath depicts not just the toll that sex crimes take on the victims, but also the toll they ultimately take on the criminals.

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