Love in the ruins

New Theatre Company puts Don Juan on Trial

Countless playwrights have this century tackled the Spanish legend of Don Juan, the man whose insatiable appetite for women represented what could be considered the first feminist cautionary fable. Even those writers who have explored the comic possibilities in Juan's winding trail of broken hearts have rarely ignored the serial betrayals of the most famous lover in world literature. Whether played for laughs or tears, the conquests who have been seduced by Juan's extravagant compliments and utter self-possession are portrayed as the casualties of an egoist who refuses to recognize his lovers as individuals, who indeed cannot distinguish their role in the world apart from serving his insatiable desire. Yet this predator who both ravishes and ravages has never really been (pun intended) penetrated; audiences are left to infer that there's nothing more to the man than the lust for manipulation that drives him.

Don Juan the narcissistic vanquisher has devolved from a character into a type thanks to overuse in the pop culture vernacular. Any writer who addresses his exploits has work cut out for him if he wants to transcend the fog of cliche that has obscured the subtleties of the Don Juan myth. Finding a fresh angle from which to view this very familiar icon, yet remaining true to the essential theme of love as a destroyer of reason, is a tricky feat. It's reasonable that anyone who sees the name "Don Juan" in the title of a play would assume he's already familiar enough with the legend to forgo another voyage through it.

However, Dallas theatergoers who pass up the opportunity to see New Theatre Company's stellar production of The Wages of Sin or...Don Juan on Trial will have forfeited a golden evening of performance. Working from a translation by Jeremy Sams of French playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's script, director Bruce Coleman and his top-drawer cast have managed to conjure a Don Juan you've never met before, a man who is examined through the prism of the consequences of his actions, not just the actions. The laughs in The Wages of Sin or...Don Juan on Trial are generous, but they blossom from a delicately tended undercurrent of pathos. Don Juan finally gets his comeuppance in the form of an all-female tribunal that gathers in a French castle to confront the man with irrefutable evidence of his cruel heart--although ultimately it's not these women who end his career as a philanderer.

Translator Jeremy Sams is most famous for having penned the recent Broadway run of Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions starring Kathleen Turner that Dallas Theater Center will stage early next year. The New York writer turned Coleman and New Theatre Company on to Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's 1991 play, which has only been produced in America once before, by Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

The Wages of Sin or...Don Juan on Trial concerns the last stand of the world's most notorious defiler (Jim Jorgensen) as he is lured to a castle in Normandy by a duchess, (Cindee Mayfield) whose virginal daughter Angelique (Marissa Cramer) has been wooed by Juan. The duchess invites Don Juan and a motley assortment of the man's past loves (Charlotte Akin, Gwen Templeton, Robyne Gulledge, Renee Michael), and then incites them to stand in judgment of the man's love life. If he's found guilty of deliberate deception, he will pay by marrying Angelique...or die under the decree of a French duke.

Theater is often cited as an actor's medium, an arena where the effort of performers is paramount to the success of a show. This truth is self-evident, but it ignores the contribution of the director, whose technical responsibility (assuming he has a talented production crew working with him) pretty much ends with making sure the actors never stay in one place for too long on stage. Yet the real artistry of the job begins while dealing with the actors; a good stage director must be critic, fan, psychiatrist, opponent, priest, and heathen during rehearsals. Bruce Coleman is a Dallas theater veteran who also happens to create some of the loveliest, most evocative sets and costumes you'll see in the city. The faint scent of incense in the air of the Swiss Avenue Theater nicely accentuated the cobweb-draped set of The Wages of Sin or...Don Juan on Trial and set a tone of decay that complemented the mournful humor nicely. But it was the assured quality of the performances provoked by Coleman that reintroduced us to the power of the Don Juan legend.

Gwen Templeton, who plays the nun driven into God's arms by Don Juan's rejection, received a best-actress award from this year's Dallas Theater Critics Forum for her performance this summer in the Pegasus Theatre production of Nicky Silver's Raised in Captivity. I found her performance, however, unruly and unfocused. In The Wages of Sin or...Don Juan on Trial, I finally saw what had charmed the other critics. As Hortense de la Hauteclaire, Templeton is grave and self-deprecating, eloquent and angry in one earthy punch. Her Sister de la Hauteclaire is virgin and whore in a single package, and when Templeton shouts, "Fuck God!" toward the end of the play, her anguished blasphemy feels as hard-earned as any vengeance this year. She's equally compelling as she tenderly remembers the first moments of Don Juan's seduction. She provides the strongest bridge between the play's hormonal and spiritual themes.

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