I have a confession. I’d much rather see a comedy by Molière than one by William Shakespeare. I think it’s mostly the language.  Since Molière is usually translated from 17th century French into modern English, his plays feel contemporary, even when set hundreds of years ago. I felt so last June when I saw The Imaginary Invalid at ACT in San Francisco and I felt so again last night watching Don Juan at A Noise Within, Glendale’s diamond of a classical theater company.

Don Juan feels very new indeed in the hands of director/designer Michael Michetti and A Noise Within’s sparkling cast.

Don Juan Tenorio is proud to be known as “the greatest degenerate who ever set foot on earth.”  If all the women he has married were put side to side, it would take a week to get from the first to the last, something which his longtime servant Sganarelle most definitely disapproves of. It is not just women that Don Juan has at his beck and call.  In Michetti’s production, it takes three servants to dress him, two of them just to help him on with his rings.

As the play begins, yet another of Don Juan’s conquests is on her way out the door just as a recent victim arrives to have it out with the Don.  She is Elvira, his latest wife, who has left D.J. and joined a convent. Apparently having had second thoughts, she demands to know why Juan has left her, but so irresistible is the man that as she is about to slap him, the slap turns into a caress.  In fact, Elvira can’t keep her hands off the 6+ foot hunk of man. Down on her knees, she has begun to unbuckle his belt when Don Juan rebukes her, letting her know that “heaven is offended” because she has broken her vows to her convent.

We next meet a shipwrecked Don Juan about to shipwreck the relationship of Pierrot, a peasant, and Charlotte, his buxom girlfriend. Pierrot is already concerned that Charlotte doesn’t demonstrate her love for him, so he is not at all pleased when D.J. starts putting the moves on his intended. Charlotte, on the other hand, is delighted by this turn of events, telling Juan that if she’d known he was going to kiss her hands, she would have washed them. Never one to shy from another “marriage,” the Don proposes to Charlotte, which leads to a hilarious slapstick fight with Pierrot (choreographed by Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr.).  When Don Juan tries to slap Pierrot, he ends up smacking his valet Sganarelle instead, to the sound of birds chirping.

Later, Don Juan reappears disguised as an old doctor. “I’ve been stopped five times already and asked for my advice,” he reveals.  It is at this point that he meets a pair of lisping “Thpanith brotherth,” Don Carlos and Don Alonso, wearing pink cummerbunds and gesticulating exaggeratedly with long pink  handkerchiefs. Don C. and Don A. are Elvira’s brothers, and they are out to avenge their sister’s betrayal, threatening Don Juan limp-wristedly with their swords.

When Mr. Dimanche, Don Juan’s creditor, arrives, Don J. interrupts him so many times that poor Dimanche can’t get a word in edgewise. “He paid me so many compliments and asked about my family so much that I didn’t have time to ask for my money,” complains the creditor, who leaves empty-handed.

An angry Don Louis, Don’t Juan’s father, pays his son a visit in order to tell him how embarrassed his is of his offspring, threatening to cut off his son, and Elvira returns to warn Don Juan to repent.  

Don Juan next shows up dressed in priest’s robes, but to Sganarelle’s consternation, his “penitence” is simply a ruse which will allow him to secure his finances and straighten out his affairs. In order to conceal his own indiscretions, he plans to accuse others of improprieties.  (How contemporary is that!)

Molière may make light of Don Juan’s philandering, but play’s startling climax makes it very clear that the playwright had no doubts about whether D.J. would end up in heaven or in hell. 

Elijah Alexander is a handsome bearded swashbuckling Don Juan. JD Cullum is very funny as the long-suffering servant Sganarelle who nonetheless clearly knows which side his bread is buttered on. As Elvira, Libby West delivers yet another terrific performance—fiery, passionate, and soulful. Abby Craden once again proves her comic talents as Charlotte, as does Kyle Nudo as Pierrot. Apollo Dukakis has much fun with the role of Mr. Dimanche. So does Sarah Green as Mathurine, another peasant girl with eyes for Don Juan. Mitchell Edmonds is very good as the blustery Don Carlos. Best of all are Stephen Rockwell and Dale Sandlin as the speech-defective bros, getting laughs with but a single word or a single gesture.  Rounding out the first rate cast are Katrina Mock, Isaac Nippert, Mat Van Curen, Lauren Hattaway, and Doug Newell.

Kudos to Rachel Myles for her sound design and Greg Chun for his original compositions, contemporary rock minuets to punctuate scene changes.  Myers is also responsible for the gorgeous black and white costumes with their occasional splash of yellow or pink, vaguely period garb with contemporary touches like Sganarelle’s black Converse high-tops. Michetti’s set transforms magically from Don Juan’s elegant apartment to a beach and then to a desert, with the simple addition of a gigantic cloth which covers the stage and set pieces in waves, and his designs are greatly aided by James P. Taylor’s outstanding lighting plot. 

As always in a Michael Michetti show, imagination and innovation are its hallmarks. In this fast and funny Don Juan, he does justice to the great Molière and then some. Don’t think classic=dull.  Not for a second in this terrific production.

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

–Steven Stanley
March 30, 2008
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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