Go to Hell

Quintessential Stage goes to the Viscount and gives Shaw's 'Don Juan' a fine dinner-package production

Summer is here; welcome to a season in hell. Not only is Live Theatre Workshop producing Sartre's No Exit (reviewed last week), about three people who've just checked into hell, but Quintessential Stage is presenting readings of George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell. Eternal damnation has never looked so good.

Quintessential is still between homes, so it's offering Don Juan in Hell as part of a dinner package at the Viscount Suite Hotel; you spend an hour chewing chicken or mouthing manicotti, then remain at your table for the 90-minute costumed reading. The food is OK, but the performance is excellent--no small feat for what is essentially a flamboyant but physically constricted little debate on human nature and aspiration.

Hell, in Shaw's scheme, is a place specially designed for the people who inhabit it, so its denizens are quite comfortable and happy there. They dress nicely and sit around talking, and talking, and talking. The devil is a most gracious host, and sometimes visitors even come down from heaven when things get too pious and dull up there. But Don Juan, the noted rake, isn't cut out for hell's society, and he's only too willing to tell everyone exactly why.

Don Juan in Hell was last produced in Tucson exactly three years ago. If theater companies can recycle classic scripts, shouldn't critics be able to recycle old reviews? Bear with me while I repeat some of the background information from my 2001 notice:

In 1903, Shaw gave his latest play the Nietzschean title Man and Superman, subtitling it A Comedy and a Philosophy. Almost immediately, producers tried to save the more commercially palatable comedy part--the story of a hapless man named John pursued by a charming, hypocritical (and therefore, by Shaw's standards, typical) woman named Ann--by ripping out the philosophy part. That would be the Act 3 dream sequence in which John imagines himself to be Don Juan languishing in hell, lecturing everyone within earshot: Doña Ana, one of his conquests; her avenging father, killed by Don Juan in a duel only to return as a statue to drag the libertine to hell; and the devil himself.

That third act, though, has taken on a life of its own. It's usually staged by itself as a simple reading, conducted by four players and retitled Don Juan in Hell. Shaw draws his characters and also his structure largely from Mozart's Don Juan opera, Don Giovanni, with a sequence of conversations mirroring the duets and trios in the opera's first act. But Shaw also owes something to Lord Byron's satirical Don Juan poem, particularly in the long, discursive monologues on the big issues of life and society. He seems also to have picked up a few pointers from Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau's idealistic Don Juan, who ends up bored with the emptiness of his life.

Yet it's Friedrich Nietzsche with whom Shaw's Don Juan seems to thrust and parry in a good-natured duel of ideas. As outlined in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche's übermensch, or superman, preaches faithfulness to the body and the material world rather than the hereafter. But Shaw's would-be superman, Don Juan, insists on following the "life force," the will of the universe, while suppressing his own will. Don Juan, bored by hell's frivolous society, longs for the blatantly tedious heaven, where he can lead a more contemplative death and somehow contribute to the betterment of the life force. However different their emphases, though, both Shaw's superman and Nietzsche's are dedicated to overcoming the self and rising above the masses.

Quintessential's presentation certainly overcomes the stasis inherent in staged readings and rises above Shaw's dependence on pontification. Its four actors find the liveliness lurking between Shaw's lines and have no trouble keeping an intelligent audience engaged throughout the witty 90-minute discourse.

Byron Hays is an ideal Juan; he doesn't try to sound Spanish, or English for that matter, but his voice and delivery--a smooth expanse of baritone ending suddenly in a sharp edge--perfectly convey the character's simultaneous boredom, exasperation, irony and fervor. As the devil, Brian Wees is the only actor here to try some non-American accent; it's quasi Spanish, but subtle, and given to a mild serpentine hiss. Wees' devil is the ostentatious host who turns indignant when someone admits displeasure with his accommodations. (Midway through the run, the role will be assumed by John Mills--the retired UA professor, not that John Mills.)

Laura Ann Herman is fully convincing as the 77-year-old woman Doña Ana first appears as, then smoothly strips away the years in her voice and demeanor once she lifts her veil to become a more fashionable 27. Bill Epstein makes the most of his part as her father, the Commander, although he doesn't really come across as a former Spanish general. From time to time, you can't help suspecting that early in his career he was awarded the Order of the Borsht Belt.

The actors sit on stools, reading from scripts, but they are arrayed in front of a simple but effective backdrop and are nattily dressed in styles fashionable at the play's premiere, nearly a century ago.

Despite Don Juan's lengthy arguments, I'm really not sure why anyone would want to escape Shaw's version of hell--especially not when one's companions are these Quintessential players.

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