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Lust in the dust: escapades of the aging roué

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"Giovanni" at Off the Wall Theatre

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What man doesn’t secretly wish for the power to seduce anyone he desires? The Don Juan story is both a myth and cautionary tale of unbridled male lust; it sprouted and flourished in a world where rich, powerful men could indeed treat women as trophies and lesser men as property. Not that that happens anymore—except in hip-hop, Wall Street, and basketball (rim shot).

Giovanni, modestly billed as an “epic comedy,” is the latest original script from Dale Gutzman, who has constructed it out of its many 18th-century sources, including Moliere, Mozart, and Casanova. The result is a highly stylized play that can’t escape the fusty air of the library. Set in the world of grand opera—of masked balls, peasant weddings, moody aristocrats, tormented donnas, and vengeful brothers—it carries its sources heavily, like a hermit crab’s carapace, ornamented with bits taken from here and there. The Commedia dell'Arte-like characters are drawn as grotesquely as Hogarth’s paintings: they represent types rather than real human beings, and they speak, rather than show, what they feel, often in rhyming couplets or florid aphorisms.

As the play opens, the world’s greatest lover is getting old: he sees liver spots on his hands, and, as his lackey Leporello is quick to point out, his belly bulges over his belt. And he’s tired; the journal that lists his conquests is as thick as a bible. Still, he desires women. He doesn’t love them—at least not once he’s won them—but whether she’s the daughter of a military commander, a nun in a cloister, or a peasant girl on the eve of her wedding, he simply must have her. Nor are men immune to his appetites; the naive fisherman groom also falls under his libidinous sway. Yet, as played by Jeremy Welter, in a fusion of Sartrean nausea and turn-of-the-century tragedian, he’s a heavy-lidded scarecrow in high-heeled boots and a Louis XVI wig; a cartoon villain whose success in seduction comes because it’s written in, not due to any obvious charm. How could any woman (or man) fall for his malarkey?

We see a comic swordfight, two and a half rapes, a mismatched duel, and the Don’s naked backside. As befits a morality play, the performances are stilted: David Flores is reliably good as Leporello; though he’s often relegated to clucking his tongue at his master’s scandalous behavior while holding out his hand for his pay, he does perform a lovely operatic solo (if you understand Italian, you’re sure to recognize how aptly chosen it is). Alexandra Bonesho gives an admirably controlled performance as the wronged nun; Alicia Rice seems to be enjoying herself in over-the-top outfits as the outraged Donna Anna; and Lawrence Lukasavage, as her frustrated fiancee, gets laughs at every entrance by dint of his absurd powdered and bewigged get-up.

It’s central to Gutzman’s social theory that people are by and large hypocritical sheep, willing to believe anything so long as it bolsters their illusions. None are immune to his grim judgement: not the high-born lady who wants to keep Don G. for herself; nor the simple townsfolk, easily misled, nor the nun, torn between her vows and her animal passion; nor the Mother Superior, who years ago started young Giovanni on his erotic adventures by seducing him. Least of all Don Giovanni himself: having harmed countless people in his narcissistic mania, he has lived his whole life trying to avoid ties, yet his broken connections return to literally strangle him in a deadly mesh. The only character who escapes the playwright’s scorn is a cynical old lady in black, who sarcastically calls out “Olé” from the sidelines, as if rape were a spectator sport.

It would all seem a sheer stylistic exercise, except for two things: the internet and the popular media—where we can instantly find cavalcades of folly to match any of Giovanni’s obsessive deceptions, and bevies of opportunistic pimps who, like Leporello, are all too willing to enable them in exchange for hard cash. It’s easy enough to imagine some pirate cellphone video of Don G’s escapades going viral on YouTube, like some periwigged Justin Bieber, who’s then relentlessly hounded by the vengeful harpies of feminist activists on Twitter. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Giovanni
by Dale Gutzman
May 22 to 25
Off the Wall Theatre
127 E Wells St

Tickets $25
(414) 484-8874
or
www.offthewalltheatre.com

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