‘Portraying an Icon: An Actor’s Reflection on Playing Don Juan’ By Sun King Davis

Sun King Davis.
Sun King Davis.

When Matthew R. Wilson offered me the role of Don Juan, my first thought was, “Hell, yeah!” It’s a chance to work with Faction of Fools, an amazing company that was recognized in 2012 with the Helen Hayes’ John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company; an opportunity to explore Commedia dell’Arte, which has always fascinated me; and a shot at playing Don Juan, a character so iconic, just his name summons images of a suave, debonair heartbreaker. Everyone knows Don Juan. In some ways he’s more famous than Hamlet, bigger than Paul Bunyan, and has more name recognition than RGIII. So my second thought became, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Presenting an icon, someone who the audience already thinks they know, can be very daunting. Much like translating a book to film, the audience has a preexisting mental picture, which reality rarely matches. My panic began to increase.

I flashed back to my first acting exercise in college. I was a cocky and headstrong eighteen year old, fresh off every high school lead. I was fearless and I knew what I was doing. That is, until the first day of class.

Photo credit to Second Glance Photography.
Bess Kaye (Dona Elvira) and Sun King Davis (Don Juan). Photo by Second Glance Photography.

‘Entering and Exiting’ is a simple exercise. There is a door, you enter, something changes, you exit. I volunteered to go first. I was going to wow my professor, my class, and even myself with my amazing rendition of a young king, thrust too early onto the throne, entering his private chambers to find a note, proof of my childhood friend’s treason, and then very stately, choking heartbreak and sobs unbecoming of a new king, leave the room to order his execution. I entered. I took my time. I hit every moment. I exited. I shook off the emotion and turned, beaming, to my professor to accept my accolades. He asked me to explain what I had done, and I gladly gave him five minutes of backstory. What he said is burned into my memory to this very day: “That’s ridiculous!  How many kings do you know?  How often do you think you’ll be playing a king? Play a REAL person. Next!”

Sun King Davis (Don Juan), Charlie Retzlaff (Sganarelle), and Bess Kaye (Dona Elvira). Photo by Second Glance Photography.
Sun King Davis (Don Juan), Charlie Retzlaff (Sganarelle), and Bess Kaye (Dona Elvira). Photo by Second Glance Photography.

So with a calm veneer hopefully disguising my queasy stomach and shaky hands, I entered Faction of Fools’ first read of Molière’s Don Juan. And a wonderful thing happened. I started to have fun. My cast mates are great: smart, energetic, daring, and talented. Matt’s adaptation of Molière’s script is playful and profound. The design for the sets, lights and projections are inspired and astounding, even in miniature. The stage management is friendly and professional. I wasn’t alone anymore, trying to create this huge, kingly presence that everyone thinks they know already. I wasn’t trying to live up to my expectations of others’ expectations. And Don Juan appeared on the page in front of me: strong and weak, daring and frightened, caring and callous, a lover and a leaver, logical and emotional, witty and thoughtful, a poor friend at times, a terrible son mostly, often right and wrong about so many things. And most of all, he was cocky and headstrong, fearless and he knew what he was doing. He was someone I knew, a REAL person.

Icons don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist because there is something innately true about them, something that we recognize in ourselves and in others. The challenge in portraying these larger than life characters isn’t just rising to their lofty heights, but finding the solid ground under all our feet. Hopefully, you will all come out and see for yourselves. An amazing team has done amazing work to bring Molière’s Don Juan to real life. In an overdue response to my professor, I say, “I see your point.” But kings are real people, too.


Faction of Fools’ Don Juan runs Thursday, September 12th through Sunday, October 6, 2013 at Gallaudet University. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.

A Pay-What-You-Can performance is scheduled for Thursday, September 12th at 8 pm. A special Monday night show is on Monday, September 30th at 7:30 pm. Purchase tickets online.

Directed and Adapted by Matthew R. Wilson. Featuring Sun King Davis, Bess Kaye, Charlie Retzlaff, Hannah Sweet, and Matthew Taylor Strote. Scenic, Lighting, and Projections Design by Klyph Stanford. Costume Design by Denise Umland. Sound Design & Music Composition by Neil McFadden. Properties Design by Ellen Houseknecht. Masks Designed and Created by Aaron Cromie.

Culture, Class, and Morality in a Whimsical ‘Don Juan’ at Faction of Fools by Matthew R. Wilson.


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