According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Don Juan in Chicago

Taking its inspiration from much older works, this modern take on the story of the legendary seducer Don Juan is full of laughs, love, and entertainment.

Reviewed by: Matthew Barbot

In this new twist on the Don Juan legend, the titular Don (Mike Cinquino) is, much like Dr. Faustus, a cloistered alchemist seeking to make a pact with the devil, willing to trade his soul for immortality so that he has the time on Earth to discover the meaning of life. As is so often the case with Faustian deals, however, the snarky demon, Mephistopheles (Stephen Balantzian), has one condition before he grants the request: the heretofore virginal Don must seduce and sleep with a different woman every night for all eternity. Fast forward to the present day, where Don Juan and his similarly bound servant, Leperello (Doug Nyman), reside in a small Chicago apartment, seducing women and avoiding the also-immortal love of the Don’s life, Doña Elvira (Shayna Padovano), for if Don Juan ever sleeps with her again, his contract for immortality is nullified. All the while the two men reflect on and analyze four hundred years of life, sex, love, and the search for meaning, realizing in the end that those four things may all be intimately tied up in one another.

Slap Hugh Grant in the lead role, and it’s a cute idea for a picture.

And yet what makes this play more “Off-Broadway” and less “Hollywood” is the fact that the writer, David Ives, clearly has a deep affection for a much older kind of romantic comedy, and it comes across brilliantly in this play. If the lead characters are from 1599, Ives seems to say, then the play should be written like it’s from 1599 as well. Story-wise, it all plays out like a Shakespearian comedy: a troubled young man is pursued by the woman he’s destined to be with, who does everything in her power to follow him and be with him, even using disguises. The young man’s deadpan servant is also along for the ride, as is a puckish, supernatural being. There are a number of reversals, but everyone ends up with someone they love in the end, happily ever after. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is Ives’ decision to have, like in an Elizabethan play, lovers and supernatural creatures speak in verse, and every character takes joy in wordplay, resulting in the writer, the actors, and the audience seeming to have a sort of fun that comes purely from clever use of language, which is not something seen terribly often anymore. The words, though, are modern, and Ives delights in anachronistic swearing and self-conscious rhyming. (Doña Elvira responds to Don Juan's admission that he's been "carried away" with the simple word, "Continu-ay.")

The entire cast is strong. Cinquino’s nice-guy looks and attitude make it easy for the audience to sympathize with him and believe that he’s wearied of his charge and his reputation. Padovano is beautiful and very funny, seeming more at home, however, with the play’s comedy than it’s more emotional moments. Balantzian’s unorthodox portrayal of the devil – cheerful, bespectacled and heavyset with thick beard stubble – makes his performance even more believable and sincere, as he’s avoided stereotypes and made the role entirely his own; he's an audience favorite from the moment he enters. The supporting cast are great in their roles, with even the smallest parts getting their time to shine. The show is stolen, however, by Nyman’s Leperello. As was often the case with the Elizabethan comedies this play is based on, the servant character is the one the audience is meant to identify with, a window into the play’s action, and neither of the other immortals on stage fully portray the full range of experience that 400+ years of life would put a person through. Though Leperello is mostly a comic character – and Nyman is hilarious on stage - Nyman is also just as able to portray his loss, his frustration, and his despair.

My one complaint is a nitpicky one: the scene change in the first act, converting a sixteenth century castle into a twenty-first century bachelor pad, takes, at a conservative estimate, five minutes. Five whole minutes, without a curtain, of the stage crew running about in slightly dimmed light, accompanied by unlicensed covers of eighties songs. While the set is great to look at, if an audience has to sit there for that long while a scene change occurs, the set’s not designed as well as it could be.

One of the reasons that long pause was so unbearable, however, was simply because I was so eager to see more of this sweet, witty, well-written show. Don Juan in Chicago is a thoroughly entertaining play, big on laughs and big on heart.

Don Juan in Chicago by David Ives
Directed by Owen M. Smith
Kirk Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street
May 26th-June 9th
Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00, Sundays at 3:00
Tickets: 212-279-4200

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