Theater review: A high-minded, low-comedy ‘Don Juan’


Don Juan (Sun King Davis) and Dona Elvira (Bess Kaye) in Faction of Fools’ Don Juan. Presented at Gallaudet University. (C. Stanley Photography)
September 17, 2013

Ahem, harrumph: Commedia dell’arte, the Renaissance style involving comic archetypes, masks and improvisation, is a deceptively intellectual tradition well suited for interpretations of —

Wait. Clowns: Yay!

Not baggy pants, red-nosed circus clowns, of course, for this is Molière’s 17th-century comedy “Don Juan.” Yet gleeful, nose-thumbing fun is what Faction of Fools unleashes in director Matthew R. Wilson’s faithful yet freewheeling adaptation. Wilson places the world-famous womanizer in an art museum, and within seconds Don Juan and his sidekick, Sganarelle, are wreaking havoc on the exhibit. Turns out they have a remote control, and you’re pretty helpless once they start switching the pictures.

The subject (at least at first) is women, of course, and the riotous sight gags that the show scores quickly sets you at ease. So does the confident shine Wilson puts on the production. The Elstad Auditorium (at Gallaudet University) is smartly cut down to size for this modest enterprise, and the uncluttered art gallery created by scenic designer Klyph Stanford features smoothly swinging center doors and nice surprises inside several large gilded frames. (Stanford also designed the clever projections and lights.)

The actors plainly enjoy playing in Wilson’s high-minded, low-comedy environment. As the pompous Don Juan, Sun King Davis carries himself with an especially straightened spine . . . or maybe he’s just snootily lifting the long Pinocchio nose of his Aaron Cromie-designed mask.

There is something Johnny Depp-y about the look of this Don Juan; costume designer Denise Umland puts the character in a ringlet wig and garb that suggests a pirate captain, never mind 17th-century European courts. From there, it’s easy for Davis to seem full of himself, though a touch more heat in his seduction scenes wouldn’t be amiss.

Wilson needs only five actors for this show, since three of them play 14 characters. Bess Kaye shows particular panache as a rival to Don Juan; Matthew Taylor Strote ranges from the sweet pantomime of a fragile Pierrot to the majestic stiffness of a statue that moves and scares the wolfish hero; Hannah Sweet steals a couple of scenes as a shrunken, scolding old man.

The show doesn’t consistently sustain the inventiveness of its opening, and there are passages that will try your patience — a flailing comic brawl, speeches and dialogue that don’t entirely enliven the hypocrisy that Molière was skewering. Commedia is hard, though, and the overall effect is of how well Faction of Fools, now in its fifth season, puts this sort of thing together. Listen to the well-timed gags of Neil McFadden’s sound design (a Beyoncéjoke is the broadest, by far); watch the sword fight done in silhouette. This is a troupe with tricks up its sleeve.

“Don Juan”

Freely adapted from Molière by Matthew R. Wilson. Directed by Wilson. With Charlie Retzlaff. Through Oct. 6 at Elstad Auditorium, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit factionoffools.org

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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