Don Juan in Chicago
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
March 4, 2005
Some people might consider the notion of too much sex an outrageous proposition. I would count myself among them. However, after seeing the Personal Space Theatrics revival of David Ives’s hilarious farce, Don Juan in Chicago, I was forced to reconsider.
The setup is quite clever, Don Juan is a Renaissance man in the year 1599 who is so immersed in the attainment of knowledge that, at the age of 30, he has forgotten to give sex a try. His servant, Leporello, tries in vain to explain the virtues of sex while Don Juan is in the middle of conjuring the Devil. When the Devil appears, in a cloud of smoke and a coughing fit due to his asthma, he has overheard the conversation between Don Juan and his servant and takes advantage of it. Don Juan asks the Devil to grant him eternal life in exchange for his soul. The Devil agrees but with one simple stipulation: Don Juan must have sex with a different woman every night before midnight or he forfeits his soul. Don Juan, knowing nothing of knowing women, quickly agrees and signs the contract. (In blood, naturally.) Unbeknownst to Leporello, the Devil agrees to let Don Juan keep him as a servant for all eternity.
Immediately after the signing, Dona Elvira, who has been in love with Don Juan since they were kids, struts through the front door and seduces him. However, this means that he can never have sex with her again. She is crushed by his rejection. The omnipresent Devil takes advantage of the situation and tricks Elvira into signing a contract for eternal life that is the opposite of Don Juan’s. Elvira will live until she has had sex with Don Juan once more. This propels them into a game of cat and mouse that lasts for centuries.
Four hundred years later, we meet up with Don Juan (now Don Johnson) and Leporello (now aptly named Lefty) in a dumpy apartment on the south side of Chicago. By this time Don Juan has become a reluctant expert in chasing (and catching) tail. He mistakenly brings home a girl with whom he made it twenty-something years earlier. Her blind-without-his-glasses boyfriend barges in and an umbrella sword fight ensues. In a scramble to beat the clock he then tries to bed his neighbor’s girlfriend, who turns out to be his daughter. It’s all rather predictable and I felt the ending coming for a long time. But that’s to be expected in a farce.
What I didn’t expect was all the rhyming. There should be a rhyming couplet warning in the program. Ives loops language in tongue-in-cheek(y) verse. Most of the rhyming is funny and clever but some of it falls into the realm of a rhyming contest. Ives endears his characters to his audience by having some of them break through fourth wall allowing the audience in on the joke. His writing is crisp and full of energy. It accelerates to 6 jokes in less than 60 seconds. Nevertheless, timing in at about two and half hours, I think this three act play is an act too long.
However, thanks to the sharp direction of Stephen Wargo, I hardly noticed the time ticking away. Wargo feels the energy in Ives’s writing and translates it into action on stage that is constantly engaging. He uses what little space he has at Theatre 54 to its utmost. His actors enter from all around the audience. I felt completely wrapped up in the action. He guides all of his actors down a perfect path of big, farcical characters.
Wargo has a great cast to work with. Michael Poignand as Don Juan is quite at home playing the greatest lover of all time. I always pictured Don Juan as looking a little more debonair, but somehow this more or less average Don Juan works well for this production. As his sidekick, Leporello, Erik Gratton is a scream. Hank Davies is properly pompous as Mephistopheles and Jennifer Dorr White and Josh Elliot get some laughs as the fighting couple that Don Juan comes between. Melissa Center and Jamie Carmichael wholly assume their roles as Don Juan’s daughter and neighbor, respectively (especially Carmichael). However, it is Elizabeth Ruelas as Dona Elvira who turns in the most memorable performance. She is absolutely hilarious and her timing and delivery is dead on.
So what does all this messin’ around mean? Ives makes his point half way through the second act when Don Juan begins to see the consequences of his actions. He has hurt hundreds of women and impregnated who knows how many since his sex marathon started centuries earlier. He realizes that he needs to take some responsibility for his actions. He is also responsible for the life of his servant who will burn in hell with him if doesn’t do the deed every night. Ives is showing us that innocence needs to be protected. We have an obligation to the innocent, to our children, to the environment and the animals, and also to the soldiers we send to war, among others.
Don’t get me wrong, though: corruption of innocence will not be weighing heavy on your mind as you watch Don Juan in Chicago. You will laugh and think about sex just like everybody else. This play is Ives at his best and PST breaths fresh life into it.