A 17th-century play, a 19th-century motif, a 20th-century translation; a Spanish hero, a French dramatist, an American translator and a Romanian director-Arena Stage's new production of Moliere's "Don Juan," which opened last night, has many layers of period and culture as an archeologist's dream dig.
And after scraping our way past a few initial obstructions, there is a rich haul of scintillating theater to be uncovered here. It is also one of the funniest excavations around.
The more noteworthy finds include:
A wonderfully tongue-tied, flabber-gasted, expansive performance by Richard Bauer as Don Juan's valet Sganarelle. Baure has an amazing talent for stepping backward in awe, an awesome feat indeed when performed on a brief stage that ends in a steep drop to all sides.
Ming Cho Lee's largely transparent duplex-gazebo of a set, equally contnet-with occasional shuffles of props, furniture and carpet-serving as Don Juan's apartment, or a beach or a mausoleum.
And last but most, the ecelctic and industrious stage generalship of Liviu Ciulei, who has directed the play in the manne of a tawdry 19th-century melodrama, full of fireworks and flamboyance.
The durable Do Juan has been wooing and weaseling his way across the world's stages since about 1625, when he surfaced in "The Playboy of Seville" by spanish playwright Tirso de Molina. Over the suceeding three centuries, his exploits have been refashioned by everyone from Mozart to Bernard Shaw to Max Frisch.
History and literature have generated other men just as conspicuous for the abundance of their sexual con- quests, but what sets Don Juan apart, as critic Oscar Mandel pointed out, is the absolute isolation of this one characteristic. It is virtually his only significant attribute. He was not particularly patriotic, like James Bond; true-spirited, like Tom Jones; or wise, like Solomon. And he showed no interest in filmmaking, like Roger Vadim.
Moliere turned to this legendary philanderer in 1664, immediately after the disgrace of "Yartuffe," which had been shut down despite the author's enviable status as court jester ot Louis XIV. But what had been a fairly straightforward morality tale in previous hands became, predictably, far more ambiguous in his.
Moliere's Don Juan ended in flames, of course, but that righting of matters utterly failed to satisfy the ehtical standard-setters of the day. They sensed, and so do we, that the playwright harbored warm, or at any rate mixed, feelings for his amoral hero.He gave Don Juan a virtuous act-for instance, his odds-defying rescue of Don Carlos-for which there is no clear ulterior motive. And he made his righteous characters a weak, muddle-minded lot by comparison.
**needless to say, the bojections to "Don Juan" had little to do with his attitude toward women. It was his attitude toward God that outraged the critics.
". . . Tell me, what do you believe?" asks his servant. And Don Juan replies: "I believe that two plus two makes four, Sganarelle, and that four plus four makes eight."
(Richard Nelson's translation, incidentally, rather formal and flowery in keeping with the 1890s setting, seems to be an improvement on previous drab, very English, English versions.)
But if Don Juan had been portrayed as he is in the first act at Arena , the play might never have been assailed and then expurgated for almost the next 200 years. Stanley Anderson is, and here proves himself to be a gifted comic actor, but at the outset he creates a particularly decadent, charmless worm of a Don Juan; it would be hard to think th playwright or audience could countenance any of the views of so unpleasant a fellow.
And it would not be so easy, either, to appreciate why women would swoon with unrestrained delight at his advances.
Happily, Anderson becomes progressively more of a bounder and less of a flounder as the show proceeds. And the rest of the Arena cast plays the text and the director's melodramatic motif with craftiness and gusto.
Two especially engagin performances are those of Reed Birney as Pierrot and Kathryn Dowling as Charlotte. Better still, these two actors appear in the same act - Act Two - and make a rollicking comic voyage of their lowbrow cooing and entreating.
This scene also manages to work in a basketful of real fish - presumably obtained from the adjoining Southwest waterfront - which Dowling scales with impressive zeal.
DON JUAN, by Moliere. Translated by Richard Nelson, Directed by Liviu Ciulei. Setting by Ming Cho Lee; coustumes by Dunya Ramicova; lighting by Hugh Lester.
Presented by Arena Stage, David Chambers, acting producing director.
With Stanly Anderson, Richard Bauer, Halo Wines, Kathryn Dowling, Annalee Jefferies and David Toney.
At Arena Stage through May 6. CAPTION: Picture, Stanley Anderson, left, Richard Bauer, center and Reed Birney in "Don Juan," by Fred Sweets - The Washington Post