At the opening of Stephen Wadsworth’s new adaptation of Moliere’s “Don Juan,” premiering at the Seattle Repertory Theater, the company parades on stage to a fanfare and takes elaborate bows. This period touch — along with lavishly detailed Louis XIV costumes and backdrops — invites us to imagine ourselves in France in 1665, when the play first premiered (and was immediately censored). But this “Don Juan” is no museum piece. The original, unexpurgated script did not survive, so this one is an amalgam of a Dutch version (published in the 1680s, after Moliere’s death) and new material. Wadsworth even penned a new prologue, in rhyming couplet, that warns us: “Be gone the unities of time, place and action.”
And how. What follows is a Spanish legend layered with the conventions of French drama and commedia dell’arte, filtered through a contemporary American lens. Like Wadsworth’s acclaimed Marivaux revivals, it is an undeniably rich and ambitious piece of work, packed with both spectacle and ideas. But whether audiences will be persuaded to ride out its shifting moods, sensibilities and viewpoints is an open question.
At the heart of the enterprise is the character Don Juan (Adam Stein). In many versions of the legend, Don Juan is merely a roue, but here he’s something more. He is a free-thinker ruled by his passions and his mind — and as such, he is totally out of step with his contemporaries, who submit to king and church. He wants what he wants (sex, luxury, revenge) when he wants it, but is not without a guiding philosophy: “I believe that two and two are four,” he says — a rationalist, ahead of his time.
Much of the tension, humor and pleasure of the play comes from Don Juan’s pairing with his servant, Sganarelle (Cameron Folmar). Sganarelle is the moralist to Don Juan’s libertine, the witness to both the appeal and destructiveness of his master’s behavior. In the Seattle Rep’s production, both roles are cast to a T: Stein’s intelligence and charisma make the force of Don Juan’s personality irresistible; Folmar’s timing, clarity and compassion make Sganarelle the perfect foil.
Throughout most of the first act, our sympathies are with the dashing Don Juan, even as he abandons his wife, abuses his underlings and leads a naive peasant girl down the garden path. We respond to his intellectual independence, his lust for life and his disdain for hypocrisy and conformity. Then, in a watershed scene, he taunts a pious beggar (Burton Curtis), urging the pauper to blaspheme in exchange for a coin. At that moment Don Juan’s skepticism crosses the line into cruelty, and we begin to share some of Sganarelle’s disgust with his master.
Unfortunately, things get a bit herky-jerky from this point forward. There’s a lengthy scene in which Don Juan’s abandoned wife, Donna Elvira (the stately Francesca Faridany), urges him to repent his sins; and another in which his father (Frank Corrado) berates him for his selfish and ungodly ways. Both seem to deflate Don Juan (though not to dissuade him from his course), and he retreats into silence and petulance. Bits of comedy are peppered throughout act two, but the buoyancy that carries the first act along disappears, and the mood fluctuates wildly.
As this play continues on its way (it was produced in association with the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., and moves there next), Wadsworth will need to find more ways to bind its moments of broad comedy to its flights of philosophy to its moralistic ending.
It makes sense that our hero should be punished for his transgressions. (How could Moliere write a play, in his time, that ended otherwise?) And it does illustrate exactly how the forces of the state and the lure of the coming Enlightenment pulled the playwright in opposing directions. But theatrically, the scene doesn’t seem to have its own life. It’s too hokey to be tragic, but not incisive enough to be funny. And in order to live up to the prodigious promise of “Don Juan’s” first act, it needs to be both.