There is always a good reason to see Tonya Beckman perform, and she is a superb Don Juan. Her rendition of the famous seducer is beguiling but at the same time horrifying, like watching a particularly charming criminal who gets away with everything, which is exactly what her Don Juan is, at least until the end.
Director Dan Crane has taken a brave step in casting a woman as the great rogue, offering us a scintillating commentary on the play itself. Don Juan is a supreme game player, and it is a treat to watch Beckman as she wittily embodies this monstrous egotist, who wins every game but one. On screen, he has been portrayed by Errol Flynn, Johnny Depp, and even Brigitte Bardot, in her last film with Roger Vadim.
Surprisingly, Molière’s Don Juan, a comedy in prose, was originally dramatized by a playwright who was also a monk, Tirso de Molina (1579-1648). Its popularity has always rested on the spectacular misdeeds of the main character, with a whiff of the supernatural at the end.
Some suspect that Molière’s version of the Don Juan story was intended as a retort to the religious zealots who caused the closing of Tartuffe in 1664. If this was Molière’s strategy, it didn’t work. Despite good business, Don Juan was forced to close too, for the same reasons. But today it is considered one of his finest achievements. Taffety Punk deserves our support for undertaking this complex and wickedly funny work, translated and adapted by Stephen Wadsworth.
The legend of Don Juan has fascinated many other artists, from Mozart to Albert Camus to Jane Austen. In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Phantom of the Opera (1986), the Phantom writes an opera entitled Don Juan Triumphant. Beckman approaches it as a sort of “pants part” much like Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Because she is female, somehow the process of filling in the “Don Juan” stereotype doesn’t happen. We are free to view her as a moral being outside of the constructs of “male” and “female,” and it adds another layer of interest to the performance. And there is a delicious irony in watching the role of Don Juan, whose signature characteristic is the devaluation of women, played by, what else, a woman?
Paul Reisman as Don Juan’s long-suffering valet and captive audience, Sganarelle, is marvelously comic. Sganarelle derives from a commedia dell’arte character, and Molière often enacted the role himself. Reisman captures every aspect of the character, who despises himself for his service to the Don, but is helpless to escape it. Sganarelle, perhaps because of his servitude, is the one character with whom Don Juan can be…well, occasionally…honest.
Don Juan is almost always at the center of the action. He encounters, among others, a wronged woman, Donna Elvira (Chelsea Mayo), an angry father, Don Luis (Briana Gibson Reeves), and two country girls who luckily survive his attentions, Charlotte (Stefany Pesta), and Mathurine (Briana Gibson Reeves again).
Casting is non-traditional, and there is a significant amount of doubling. Each one of the actors has some fine moments: Louis E. Davis, in the hyper-energized Prologue, and as Charlotte’s disappointed suitor, Pierrot, another commedia dell’arte character. Chelsea Mayo is hilarious as the mercantile Monsieur Dimanche, and Briana Gibson Reeves is impressive in the difficult role of Don Juan’s indignant father, Don Luis. Stefany Pesta shows unusual range in her portrayals of Charlotte, the innocent peasant girl, and Don Carlos, Donna Elvira’s furious brother.
The second part is a little slow, but this will probably change as the run continues. The setting is listed as “France, way back” and the eclectic costumes by Jen Gillette enhance the interpretation of the play as a fable. The imaginative projections are by Patrick W. Lord.
Don Juan, as a toxic male, has undoubted political and personal relevance for our time. This is a rare opportunity to see one of Molière’s greatest roles, Don Juan, interpreted by a gifted actress.
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.