Wed Feb 20 2008
Photograph: Maedhbh McCullough
Molière just can’t win in this town. In October, the 17th-century master farceur was violently deconstructed at New York Theatre Workshop in Ivo van Hove’s The Misanthrope (complete with cell phones and video screens). Now comes the other extreme: the mock-obsequious period fidelity displayed by the National Theater of the United States of America. In a brief prologue to NTUSA’s silly, seductive Don Juan, actor James Stanley addresses the audience (which is seated on cheap folding stools and sipping free wine). He assures us that every detail of the shoestring production is imbued with a keen sense of historicity. In a weird way, he’s telling the truth.
NTUSA creates low-budget jewel-box sets that are half ironic, half expressions of a nostalgic longing for theatrical magic. For Molière’s 1665 tragicomedy about the legendary lothario (Yehuda Duenyas, working the Vincent Gallo crazy-sexy vibe) and his puritanical servant Sganarelle (Jesse Hawley, pinched and distant), the company has crafted an in-the-round venue of painted backdrops and baroque tableaux. There are two impressive reveals at either end of the playing space: Don Juan’s red-lit, pillow-strewn boudoir, and the stark, marbled mausoleum where the Statue of the Commander drags Don Juan to Hell. Plenty of slapstick, camp hysterics and silly sound effects add laughs.
This tongue-in-cheek condensed version, arranged by Stanley and Normandy Sherwood (who also acts), was cobbled together from every translation available. The spirit of textual mongrelism extends to the catch-as-catch-can performances, which are daffy, eclectic, overwrought and tossed-off. While literally—and intentionally—not on the same page, the actors somehow turn the lack of unifying style into an affectionate homage to an enduring classic.