"Don Juan" in Philadelphia - 2/16/11
Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Ugly One and Don Juan

Some people might find the onstage violence in The Lieutenant of Inishmore too much to stomach. People get tortured and shot—even cats get slaughtered. In the final scene, so much fake blood coats the stage that the actors slip and fall as they try to move across it. Yet, improbable as it may seem, the bloodier it gets, the funnier it gets. Martin McDonagh's play is comedy at its darkest, but Theatre Exile's production makes light of the violence (and its underlying causes). The result is tremendously satisfying.

Set in Ireland in 1993, the lieutenant in question is Padraic, a gunman too crazy even for the Irish Republican Army to handle. He's so dissatisfied with the IRA and its splinter groups that he is "thinking of forming a splinter group from a splinter group"—with himself in charge, of course. He considers himself honorable, even as he hangs a drug dealer upside down and cuts the man's toenails off. Yet, as ruthless as Padraic is, he has one weakness: his love for his cat Wee Thomas, his "only friend for fifteen years." When he finds out that Wee Thomas is ill, he ends his torture session and heads home, only to find out that the cat is actually dead. And that's when the real trouble begins. Someone has to pay for Wee Thomas' death—and since this is Ireland, everyone must pay, one way or another.

McDonagh's plot is full of twists that always feel believable, because we're in the company of people for whom centuries of revenge and recrimination have created a twisted moral universe. The logic that makes everything seem absurd to the audience makes perfect sense to them. Director Matt Pfeiffer's production is blessed by lively pacing and excellent production values (Aaron Cromie is billed as Cadaver Fabricator, which should give you an idea of what you're in for). Special praise should go to dialect coach Lynn Innerst: the Irish accents sound authentic but are never too thick to understand.

Pearce Bunting and Robert DaPonte are lovably dense as the dunces who get the ball rolling by trying to cover up the cat's demise. Brian McCann, William Zielinski and Andrew Kane play three terrorist stooges but make each one distinct and memorable. Keith Conallen plays an entire scene upside down yet never misses a beat. Paul Felder is funny and intense as Padraic, while Elena Bossler has a fierce, sexy turn as Mairead, a teenaged revolutionary who finds Padraic's aggression an aphrodisiac.

Exile's Lieutenant of Inishmore is raucous, hilarious, and aggressively tasteless. And McDonagh's play drives home the horrors of Ireland's "troubles" while satirizing them at the same time. Quite a feat.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore runs through March 13, 2011, presented by Theatre Exile at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15-$40, with special rates for students and seniors, and are available by calling 215-218-4022 or online at www.theatreexile.org.

Sarah Gliko, Noah Mazaika and
Ben Dibble

Photo: Mark Garvin

"No one's ever told you? I can't believe ..." Those are the words that an office worker named Lette hears from his boss when he's passed over for the chance to give an important presentation to prospective clients. The reason? Lette is ugly. In fact, the boss adds with a grin and a chuckle, "We can't stand the sight of you!" And what does Lette's wife think of him? Come to think of it, she never has been able to bring herself to look at his entire face. Maybe it's time for Lette to make a change.

That change, and its repercussions, make up the plot of The Ugly One, a comedy by Marius Von Mayenburg (translated from German by Maja Zade) now playing at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3. It's a satire about society's obsession with appearance, and it scores, thanks to some terrific gags and sharp, energetic performances, even though it becomes repetitive in the end.

Lette, played with a nice sense of befuddled wonder by Ben Dibble, ends up undergoing plastic surgery to "cure" his affliction. Once the bandages are off, Dibble looks, well, the same as he did before ... to us, that is. But the people in his life treat him like a different person—a better person. His boss lets him give that presentation after all. His wife suddenly can't keep her hands off him, and every other woman in the world now finds him irresistible, too. He becomes the boy toy of a rich, elderly woman and her gay son. And then, believe it or not, things get really crazy.

The Ugly One is completely ridiculous, and works by keeping its tongue firmly in its cheek. Eventually, though, the jokes get old and the targets become too obvious, and the play runs out of steam long before its eighty minutes are up. Zade's translation doesn't help; perhaps phrases like "I'm competent and you're not" work better in German, but much of the dialogue here has a clunky, unnatural rhythm. The show's laughs come more from its outrageous premise and plot twists than its dialogue. (There are some gross-out sound effects during the plastic surgery scene, but the humor is nowhere near as extreme as in Inishmore.)

Director Debi Marcucci keeps things running fast and furiously, and the performances are all excellent. The three skilled comedians supporting Dibble—Sarah Gliko, Noah Mazaika, and Bill Van Horn—play multiple characters, sometimes changing personas in a split second. All three are very impressive, with Gliko getting the most laughs out of her transitions. Glen Sears' set design consists of blocks which leave room for projections; this makes for some clever and effective scene transitions.

Von Mayenburg's target is a worthy one for satire, but the creativity and invention of The Ugly One eventually wanes. Still, it's fun while it lasts.

The Ugly One runs through March 13, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 and available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org, www.ticketmaster.com or the box office.

John G Williams, Anthony De Sando and Jessica Dal Canton
Photo: Bas Slabbers

While The Ugly One isn't always well served by its translation, it's also true that the right translation can elevate a play and help it to connect with an audience. A good example is Molière's 1665 version of the classic tale Don Juan, which Quintessence Theatre Company is now presenting in a 2004 translation by British writer/director Neil Bartlett. It's not a perfect adaptation; its over-reliance on contemporary phrases such as "Don't quit your day job" makes it unlikely that Bartlett's version will be performed as long as Molière's has been. But it's an engaging take on the tale of the legendary lover, libertine and louse. Director Alexander Burns' production does a nice job of conveying what makes its antihero appealing and dangerous, even though not everything in the production works.

Anthony De Sando brings just the right swaggering heat to the role of Don Juan, showing why he is a danger to women and a threat to polite society. Don Juan's servant Sganarelle tells the audience just how insidious his employer is: "He's a maniac, evil, brutal, heretical ..." But Sganarelle is so desperate to keep his job that he constantly changes his opinion of Don Juan—sometimes in the middle of a scene, sometimes even in the middle of a speech. Sure, Don Juan is untrustworthy, but how trustworthy is Sganarelle? John G. Williams plays the servant with an air of weary resignation. He's seen Don Juan's act too many times to be surprised by the words that come out of his mouth. In one of Burns' nicest touches, Don Juan uses flowery words in attempting to seduce a woman while Sganarelle stands on the other side of the stage and mouths the same words—words you can tell he's heard over and over. Jessica Dal Canton is the standout in the ensemble, giving an elegant performance as Dona Elvira, whose rejection by Don Juan sets the plot in motion.

Bethany Ditnes and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen play the bickering lovebirds Charlotte and Pierrot as a pair of working class South Philly loudmouths, and the blustery style they use in their big scene never gels with the rest of the production; it seems oddly unnatural and unfunny. The play's subtler scenes work better, most notably a witty scene in which Don Juan juggles two fiancées (Ditnes and Dal Canton).

The sound design (by Bryce Page) and lighting (by Mike Billings) is much improved, compared to this young company's previous productions. Costume designer Jane Casanave provides some sleek outfits for Don Juan to wear, notably a white linen suit that makes De Sando seem every bit the modern rake. But the other characters' costumes seem to come from random centuries. It's never clear what era the show is set in, and the set design (a simple black wall pierced by five doorways) doesn't settle the matter. A more definite setting would make Don Juan's story seem more vital and involving.

Quintessence's Don Juan is a bit rough around the edges; it's not as smooth as its title character. But it's got a fine cast, led by the charismatic De Sando, and while it's a bit dry at times, it's got an admirable attitude that makes it worth checking out.

Don Juan runs through Closer March 13, 2011, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org, or by visiting the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

Privacy Policy