Moliere’s prose tragicomedy on the life and career of history’s most notorious rake, “Don Juan” is rarely performed in English due to structural, tonal and thematic difficulties, most of which are decisively overcome in helmer-designer Michael Michetti’s devilishly elegant production at A Noise Within. Injecting guts and heart into the facade of artificial comedy, Michetti’s staging manages to be both wildly entertaining and a work of moral intelligence — no small feat in any era.
Moliere’s episodic treatment of the last days of the dastardly Don (Elijah Alexander) veers precipitously from slapstick to melodrama to near-sacred ritual in the final moments. Yet Michetti’s design choices and playing style, abetted by Richard Nelson’s tight, muscular translation, unify the piece into a full-bodied portrait boldly acknowledging — as Moliere did — the wages of sin no less than its deliciousness.
Alexander’s bare-chested, tight-trousered Juan bestrides Michetti’s chessboard-patterned set like a colossus, conqueror of all the queens, knights and pawns he sets out to rook. What an arsenal he possesses! Under attack by Elvira (Libby West), the convent girl he’s seduced and abandoned, he grasps the wrist attempting to slap him and she melts at his touch. Whispered asides mollify two peasant lasses (Abby Craden and Sarah Green) accusing him at once, and extravagant compliments deflect a demanding creditor (the smooth-as-silk Apollo Dukakis).
Yet for all the high and low comedy around him, Alexander never lets us forget the deadly serious core of a monster determined to experience everything without consequences. Since Moliere omits the usual counterarguing “raisonneur,” we and browbeaten servant Sganarelle (J.D. Cullum) are left in mute consideration of Juan’s increasingly appalling excesses, a farewell riposte to his despairing father (a touching Mitchell Edmonds) hitting us like a whipcrack. (The Don even turns late-inning pious hypocrite as if in a “Tartuffe” prequel, the author still suffering public condemnation after the premiere of his classic a year earlier.)
The ferocious Alexander — a perfect straight man in every sense of the term — understandably can’t contribute much to the comedy, safe in the hands of the droll, indefatigable Cullum with sparkling support from Stephen Rockwell in the funniest use of the Castilian lisp you’re ever likely to see (with Dale Sandlin sailing in with the topper). Except for a forced, tediously extended scene between proles on the beach, the humor of this “Don Juan” is executed with supreme finesse, making the experience even more unnerving when a statue comes to life and Don Juan’s heavenly chickens finally come home to roost.
Production maintains one foot in the 17th century and the other in our own: Greg Chun’s Mozartesque harpsichord tunes pick up a funky techno backbeat; Rachel Myers’ witty costumes extend the black-and-white motif while assigning Don Juan’s victims distinctive, even lurid flashes of color.
James L. Taylor’s lights successfully negotiate script’s whipsaw shifts from hilarity to sorrow, together with Rachel Myles’ sound design subtly reminding us (if not Don Juan himself) of divine omnipresence.
Only a disappointingly perfunctory and underlit finale — we want to hear more suffering, and see the face of the sufferer in full — mars the swift and absorbing progression of this Don Juan to hell, while the rest of us get transported to the other place.