Carnival is a time for overturning rules, so it's fitting that GALA Hispanic Theatre's "Don Juan Tenorio" should open with a depiction of that season. Figures in masks and gaudy dress are natural companions of the play's eponymous rake, who delights in transgressing society's moral code.
The carnival masks look right at home in this melodramatic but visually arresting production, directed by José Carrasquillo from Nando López's world-premiere script. In this iteration of the Don Juan legend, the notorious womanizer plans and executes his conquests amid dramatic shadows and gothic floods of light. Later, he confronts a gallery of ghostlike statues worthy of a horror movie.
It puts an eye-catching sheen on the play, which Spanish dramatist López has adapted from an 1844 work by his countryman José Zorrilla. López has also folded into this new drama some nods to Don Juan tellings by Tirso de Molina, Lorenzo Da Ponte and Molière. (Performances are in Spanish with English surtitles. Christopher Annas-Lee designed the lighting, and Jeffery Peavy the costumes and masks, which stand out on Giorgos Tsappas's spare set.)
Giving the production grounding is Spanish actor Iker Lastra, who makes the title character a very human antihero. This Don Juan is a brooding, conflicted egomaniac, driven more by competitiveness than pleasure in philandering.
After besting his rival Don Luis (Peter Pereyra) in a wager as to who can rack up the most seductions and dueling fatalities between one Carnival and the next, Don Juan preys on Don Luis's fiancee (Paz López). Subsequently, aided by the corrupt Brígida (Luz Nicolás), Don Juan abducts the naive Doña Inés (Inés Domínguez del Corral) from a convent.
But Doña Inés erodes Don Juan's callousness, paving the way for his redemption. With its fevered visuals, the evocation of the final battle for his soul becomes one of the overwrought sequences in a show that is otherwise engagingly lush, well-acted and lively.
The news release quotes Carrasquillo as saying that Doña Inés's behavior gives this adapted "Don Juan Tenorio" an ending that's downright feminist. This argument is dubious. (Early on, Inés is passive; later, she's arguably a saintly patriarchal archetype.) For a clearer feminist vision — with admittedly less spiffy production values — try "Aglaonike's Tiger," premiering at Venus Theatre.
Claudia Barnett's daring, poetic and dryly funny play imagines the life of Aglaonike, the ancient Greek female astronomer (mentioned by Plutarch). Championing science when her contemporaries swear by mysticism and magic, Aglaonike confronts hucksters, visits the underworld and befriends a tiger (Matthew Marcus).
Under Deborah Randall's direction, the acting is uneven and the costuming, often goofy-looking. But the puppetry adds zest, and Ann Fraistat is delightful as a no-nonsense Aglaonike. Sensible though she be, this plucky visionary is more of a rebel than any wild carnival carouser.
Don Juan Tenorio, adapted by Nando López from José Zorrilla's play. Directed by José Carrasquillo; sound design, David Crandall; properties, Alicia Tessari; fight choreography, Jonathan Ezra Rubin. With Carlos Castillo and Manolo Santalla. In Spanish with English surtitles. (English translation, Carrasquillo.) About two hours. Tickets: $30-$45. Through Oct. 1 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Visit galatheatre.org or call 202-234-7174. Aglaonike's Tiger, by Claudia Barnett. Direction, costumes and props by Deborah Randall; lighting design, Kristin Thompson; sound design, Neil McFadden; set, Amy Rhodes; puppet bones, Matthew Pauli; masks, Tara Cariaso; choreography, Alison Talvacchio. With Randall, Rhodes, Katie Hileman and Katie Jeffries Zelonka. Two hours. Tickets: $20-$40. Through Oct. 1 at Venus Theatre, 21 C St., Laurel, Md. Visit venustheatre.org.