DON JUAN IN HELL
at the Royal George Theatre Center
Of all Shaw's many plays, Don Juan in Hell is perhaps the most problematic--largely because it's not actually a play at all. Stuck in the middle of the third act of Man and Superman, Don Juan in Hell is a kind of Shavian dream ballet: a dream debate, if you will. The hero of Man and Superman, Jack Tanner, who is being relentlessly pursued by Ann Whitefield, comes in contact with a group of bandits. Tanner falls asleep in their company and dreams Don Juan in Hell, a philosophical dialogue in which Tanner becomes Don Juan, Ann becomes Juan's former love, Dona Ana, Ann's guardian turns into Don Gonzalo, Ana's father, and the bandit leader, Mendoza, is transformed into the Prince of Darkness himself.
The subtitle for Man and Superman is "A Comedy and a Philosophy," and while all of Shaw's work contains a hefty amount of philosophizing, Don Juan in Hell indulges in pure ideology. Shavian principles are put into the mouth of Don Juan and pitted against societal ideals, which are put into the mouth of the Devil; as expected, the writer comes out the victor. Shaw has a great deal of fun with the debate, even mocking his own wordiness and paradoxical morality. The strength of the piece lies in the intelligence and seductiveness of the opposing viewpoints. When Don Juan emerges triumphant, he has indeed won a grand battle of wits, not merely toppled idiotic ideals. Shaw's Mephistopheles has the charm and sagacity of Oscar Wilde, and indeed the battle reflects Shaw's disdain for Wilde's brand of frivolity, his way of squandering his brilliance on petty entertainments.
Don Juan in Hell is rarely performed in productions of Man and Superman, mostly because of its length (this production runs an hour and a half without intermission). But this heady Aristotelian dialogue is also rarely performed because it stops the action of Man and Superman dead in its tracks. When it's to be seen at all, it's usually in the classroom or in conjunction with its mother piece (as, for instance, Wallace Shawn's notes were given a performance separate from but complementary to Steppenwolf's Aunt Dan and Lemon). Essentially the piece has no action and an awful lot of lengthy analytical monologues. Still, lovers of language and G.B.S. fans (like me) can find a great deal of enjoyment listening to an intriguing debate punctuated by plenty of Shavian wit. Don Juan in Hell contains the philosophical basis for almost all of Shaw's work, and untainted by action, those ideas are remarkably clear.
Director Louis Contey realizes the visual and dramatic stasis inherent in the piece, and indeed heightens this feeling by arranging the stage as if for a chamber-music concert. An elegant drape hangs artily at the rear of the stage, a bust of Mozart sits off to the side, and a table with decanter and glasses is set up in front. The rest of the stage is taken up with four stools and four music stands placed in front of them. The costumes, too, are simple and nonspecific, the men in tuxedos, the woman in a ball gown.
This production begins with Don Juan asleep on one of the stools (a nod to the dream it was originally intended to be). A narrator, whom we later find is the devil, gives us a shortened version of Shaw's explicit and delightful stage directions, complete with costumes for the characters. As each character enters the playing area, he/she places the "score"--a black notebook with the script inside--on a music stand and follows along with it.
In theory, it's a lovely way to emphasize the essence of the piece: it's a quartet of voices. But given the heavy-handed philosophical theme and the fact that there are only four voices, each of which must represent an archetype of sorts, those voices need to be striking. Contey's actors run the gamut of talent and familiarity with the piece. The results are devastating.
Michael Weber is remarkable as the devil (a role sometimes taken by Ted Rubenstein). Physically Weber dominates this small space, and the nuances of his facial expressions are riveting, even when he's silent. He also has an astounding gift for language --a necessity when playing Shaw--infusing the words with such potency, passion, and intelligence that it's impossible not to be enticed.
Unfortunately, however, for the show to work the devil needs a strong adversary, and Troy West is not even in the same league as Weber. West makes a simply abysmal Don Juan, a Don Juan who whines and plods his way through speeches with all the charisma of a college professor who's been teaching the same classes for too long. To make matters worse, West seems to have memorized next to nothing of the script, and so has his head buried in his notebook for most of the evening. Even then he has trouble with his lines, pausing in the middle of a thought to turn the page. Sadly, at least two-thirds of the play consists of Don Juan's speeches.
With such an uninspired Don Juan, the Devil walks away with the debate--Shaw is thoroughly vanquished. Indeed the only flaw in Weber's performance arises from that fact: true to Shaw's intentions, Weber becomes flustered by the power of his opponent's words. But in this production, Don Juan is a cipher.
Dierdre Waters as Dona Ana and Ron Engler as Don Gonzales (also alternating with Ted Rubenstein) lack the necessary fire for their mythic roles. But both are intelligent, competent actors, suitable foils for the two major contestants. Alas, in this production, there is only one.