Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Don Juan in Hell
Also see Richard's review of A Number
The West End Players Guild should be commended for producing a fully staged production of Don Juan in Hell by George Bernard Shaw, originally written as a dream sequence within the third act of Man and Superman. Don Juan in Hell was popularized in the 1950s through a reader's theatre presentation by the First Drama Quartette (Charles Boyer, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Laughton, and Agnes Moorehead) and is often performed in that format. However, presenting this work as a fully staged play brings a depth and liveliness which a staged reading cannot provide, and helps combat the occasional verbosity of the text.
Putting on a revival of Don Juan in Hell is a challenge because the company must find some way to both remain true to Shaw's play and deal with the changing expectations of theatregoers. There is very little action and a lot of talking (100 minutes worth, without intermission) about things like The Life Force and The Eternal Female, and the modern audience member could not be faulted for wondering if he or she wandered into a college debating hall, circa 1900, by mistake. In addition, some concepts which form a background to the discussions onstage are positively offensive today, while others are simply unfamiliar, so full appreciation of the performance requires intellectual effort as well as stamina. Director Steve Callahan and his able cast have done everything in their powers to bring this play to life, and those willing to make the effort to enter the imaginative world of Don Juan in Hell will find their efforts amply rewarded. On the other hand, those not fluent in the concepts of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer can still spend a pleasant evening with Don Juan and his companions, enjoying the interplay among the characters and the many Shavian reversals and witticisms salted within the lengthier discourses, including "An Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable," "Marriage is the most licentious of all institutions" and "Hell is full of musical amateurs."
The action in Don Juan in Hell takes place, not surprisingly, in Hell, or perhaps in the Sierra Nevada, where John Tanner, the leading character of Man and Superman, has fallen asleep and has the dream which makes up this play. Either location is ably suggested by the set designed by Steve Callahan from minimal means. This is not the Hell you may be familiar with from Sunday School, however: it's not a place of torment (except for the boredom Don Juan complains of) and there's no barrier between heaven and hell; anyone dissatisfied with their current location can go to the other whenever they like. The action, such as it is, concerns the reunion of three characters from the Don Juan legend, best known from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni: Don Juan, Dona Aña, and The Statue (Dona Aña's father), who meet up with the fourth character, The Devil.
Don Juan, who is more a mouthpiece for Shaw's philosophical ideas than the legendary womanizer whose name he carries, is a difficult role which requires the actor to deliver, without irony, lines such as, "I tell you that as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it." Nonetheless, Jason Meyers plays Don Juan with great conviction and animation, proving himself a worthy champion of Shaw's philosophy while simultaneously injecting life into the role. Robert Beck plays the Devil with great wit and restraint and provides a worthy adversary to Don Juan; between the two of them, they seem to do about three-quarters of the talking in this play. Dona Aña has the thankless task of defending conventional morality, a role which threatens to place her in a position similar to that of Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers movies, but Lilith Baker pulls it off and holds her own among the boys. Richard Lewis as The Statue offers a welcome contrast to his more verbose male companions and keeps the philosophical discussions from spinning off entirely into space.
The costume design for Don Juan in Hell, which is uncredited, is simple and effective: drawing on the reader's theatre tradition, all the players wear evening clothes. Dona Aña has the only costume change, transforming herself from an elderly hag in a black cloak to a stunning young woman in a backless red evening gown, which not coincidentally shows off her tattoos to full advantage. Befitting marble, the Statue wears a white tux, and Don Juan and the Devil wear black tuxes, the Devil distinguished by a red boutonnière. Sound design, credited to "Chuck Lavazzi and G.B. Shaw" is also simple and effective, drawing primarily on music from Mozart's opera, and lighting design by Amy Ruprecht Belt clearly delineates the action within the small stage area at Union Avenue Christian Church.
Don Juan in Hell will be performed by the West End Players Guild at Union Avenue Christian Church through January 28, 2007. The box office number is 314-367- 0025, their website is www.westendplayers.org. Their next production will be The Unexpected Guest by Agatha Christie, directed by Mike Miko, which will run March 9-11 and March 16-18, 2007.