The tragic song of Don Juan

The Jeune Lune combines Mozart and Moli

Matt Graham

Near the end of the Jeune Lune’s production of “Don Juan Giovanni,” the tragic hedonist Don Juan (Dominique Serrand) explains his embrace of sin to his witless companion Sgaranelle (Steven Epp) by saying “An honest man accommodates the vices of his time.”

It’s an apt descriptor, not only of Don Juan, but of “Don Juan Giovanni.”

As a follow-up to last fall’s highly acclaimed interpretations of Molière’s “The Miser” and “Tartuffe,” the Jeune Lune opens 2007 by updating the French playwright’s 1665 work “Don Juan” and combining it with Mozart’s 1787 opera, “Don Giovanni” – both based upon the same legendary European seducer.

The Jeune Lune provides a peculiarly postmodern take on these two classic texts. Not only does it place them in the present day, but it splices together scenes from both works into an Ingmar Bergman-like meditation on the nature of self, among other decidedly modern quandaries.

The production begins with a conversation between Sgaranelle and Don Juan, but it isn’t long before the string section kicks in with strains of Mozart. Don Giovanni (Kory Bickel) and Peter (Dieter Bierbrauer) take the stage singing operatically in Italian before being chased by the father of Donna Anna (Momoko Tanno), whose honor Giovanni has taken. A subtitled video screen in the back is used for translation as well as scenery, displaying the Minneapolis skyline.

When Don Giovanni kills the father by hitting him with a car, Donna Anna vows to get revenge. She is joined by Elvire (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), the former nun who left her convent to marry Don Juan, only to be abandoned by the restless philanderer. Their duo becomes a triumvirate when Charlotte (Christina Baldwin), who was tricked by the Dons into leaving her fiancé Peter, decides she too wants some of the action.

As the play progresses, it becomes less and less clear where Don Juan ends and Don Giovanni begins. Though their comic sidekicks Peter and Sgaranelle immediately become fast friends, the two Dons hardly ever interact, the younger Giovanni wailing operatically while the older Juan opines philosophically against the slavery imposed by God and morality.

Is it possible that the older Don Juan, obsessed with maintaining his youth, created the youthfully virile Don Giovanni as a way of cheating the inevitable process of aging? It’s one of many questions the tragic end leaves hanging.

“Don Juan Giovanni” is a theatrical spectacle, though that’s par for the course for Jeune Lune by this point. The music, ably performed by a string-and-piano five-piece, is some of Mozart’s finest and stands on its own. The plain white stage is lit almost exclusively by atmospheric, shadow-casting spotlights, and the various projections of the Twin Cities plastered on the video screen serve not only to set the scenes but, to provide a localized familiarity.

Epp and theater founder Serrand provide crisp, philosophically comic dialogue. The other actors don’t deliver their spoken lines quite as well, but make up for it with their soaring voices.

Except for brief appearances by a bike and a table, the old ’40s-style car that the two Dons and their sidekicks use for transportations is the only prop. It’s the classic American symbol of youth, freedom and phallic vitality, but it’s hard not to notice that, like Don Juan, it’s getting old.

Such is the tragedy of Don Juan – forever in search of novelty, he cannot accept change in himself, even as time forces it upon him. He despises human slavery to an ideal God, despises “the working man in all his glory – life offers him nothing, and he accepts.”

Bleeding vice, he nevertheless seems anything but evil, seems to sincerely love the women he seduces, even if only temporarily. For Don Juan, Camus’ archetypal “absurd man,” eternity is to be found precisely in the ephemeral now, in the full enjoyment of this moment.

But alas! Youth flees and we all must come to grips with it. Don Juan’s refusal to do so, even at his end, displays not only his admirable faith to his ideals, but his fatal flaw as a human. Tragically, Don’s beloved eternal youth proves every bit as abstract as the patriarchal God he has rejected.

Heavy stuff. So why doesn’t the production’s grave conclusion hit home with more gravity? Because by valiantly meandering from the justifiably long-lived original texts, much of the aching humanity of the originals is lost. The results are interesting, if occasionally incoherent. The excessively ambitious “Don Juan Giovanni” almost ascends to greatness, giving these long-in-the-tooth texts a new youth, but in the end it succumbs to the vices of its all-too-clever times.