By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sure enough, at a sold-out Thursday-night performance, ticketbuyers were chortling till their ribs hurt at David Ives' rhyming, merrily profane version of the Don Juan myth, making you wonder whether all the noisy festivity bled into Theatre Three's Company upstairs (and made those audiences yearn for some genuine emotional engagement). Signature Lean Theater glitches remain for this latest outing -- namely, you never for a moment believe a couple of the key actors in their roles. But charm, energy, and crack comic timing can knock the objections right out of you. This show doesn't just flirt with you: It jumps in your lap and plants wet kisses all over your face. Be warned -- it also pauses to hump your leg along the way, but there's no need to feel embarrassed in front of company. They're being similarly accosted.
Even as veteran Dallas performer Thurman Moss seems to play himself, sometimes obtrusively, the more I see him onstage (he plays a very Mossy devil in this show), his ability as a director to coax relaxed comedy out of stage neophytes grows more impressive. Three newcomers -- Januari Mayberry, Ward Williams, and Jesse Castillo -- are dropped into the mix with some fairly seasoned talent, and not only hold their own in the amorous melee, but actually earn chuckles (Castillo) and contribute a drop of poignancy (Mayberry) from their own efforts.
Don Juan in Chicago also benefits from what appears to be a cash infusion: Set and costume designer Bruce Coleman bedecks Lean's typically gaunt appearance with a few extra pounds of luxury, notably with the smart, flattering duds on display here. I love poverty-stricken theater, but in the past, Lean has sometimes erred on the tacky side, as though self-conscious of its limited budget. The modest but attractive production design nicely complements the verbal extravagance in this show.
"If our happiness could be bottled," says one lover to another in Ancient History, a different David Ives play, "then the world would be littered with empties." The playwright's ability to set metaphors afire with beguiling absurdity has led some to dub him "Stoppard Light." This has as much to do with the fact that Ives secured his reputation through sketch comedy -- not to mention that he makes fewer overt philosophical allusions -- as with any disfavor earned honestly by comparison. Though a sensation only since 1994, when his sketch revue All in the Timing swept through New York, Ives tends to be more economical, less sententious in his insanity than Stoppard. Although sometimes dark in subject, his work indeed radiates happiness in a way few other stage writers do. You could buy an SUV with the money you'd earn recycling the empties his scripts leave behind.
Don Juan in Chicago epitomizes this. Ives takes the 17th-century Spanish libertine and customizes him to fit a longer comic arc, folding in the legend of Faust in the process. This Don (Marc Hebert) starts off as a bookish virgin who really is interested in women for their minds alone. His exasperated servant Leporello (Terry Vandivort) is constantly trying to get Don Juan hooked up, or at least laid, to take his mind off the occult studies that make life miserable around the castle (the play opens with a rain of reptiles). Don Juan summons Mephistopheles (Moss) and sells his and Leporello's soul for eternal life and infinite knowledge. But he didn't read the contract clause: He must bed a different woman every night. Leporello, for his part, must work overtime to procure insurance against eternal damnation for himself and his master.
Unfortunately, his first conquest is Dona Elvira (Nance Watkins), a woman who doesn't cotton to being jilted. Once discarded, she arranges a little meeting between herself and His Satanic Majesty, and sells her soul so that she may pursue Don Juan through the centuries in an attempt to trip him up. If he shtups the same woman twice, he's cast into eternal hellfire.
The dialogue in Don Juan in Chicago is so clever, so crackling, so very inventive that actors have to jog to keep up with it. Three of the performances here are trim and tone and ready for competition: Watkins as the determined Dona Elvira; Mary Lyons as Sandy (or is that Wendy?), a simmeringly angry woman in modern-day Chicago who wants to use Don Juan to take revenge on her creep of a boyfriend; and Terry Vandivort as the long-suffering, oft-ignored manservant and pimp Leporello. You get the sense that Vandivort, the old comic pro, is the beacon in this show everyone else is following to keep their footing sure. His presence makes every scene juicy and flavorful.