The Ladies’ Man: Moliere’s Don Juan returns to original form

Full of frenzied energy, The Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Moli?re’s classic play Don Juan has a surprisingly contemporary feel. Director Stephen Wadsworth’s new translation and adaptation of the work, coupled with a sumptuous visual aesthetic and energetic blocking, invigorates the text with an overindulgent style that seems only fitting for the pre-Revolution era.

The program notes tell us that the play was censored from its very opening. Moli?re’s Tartuffe was earlier suppressed for its scathing portrayal of a cheating clergyman, so the playwright must have known that a play about the most infamous lover of all time was going to push some buttons. Understandably, the play was changed dramatically from its original state and the “true” text of Don Juan has not been staged for nearly two and a half centuries – until now.

Farce seems to be the strongest unifying element of an otherwise weak-plotted narrative. Even the eerily white faces of the actors in classical makeup serve as a detached mockery of humanity. A prologue, which Wadsworth added in his adaptation, has the audience playing a part: we will be a theater-going audience from 1665, with King Louis XIV in attendance. This initial address directly to the audience teases the powerful Sun King with the sarcastic “Long Live the King!” at every turn (a convention that is used – and eventually abused through overuse – throughout the remainder of the performance).

The performances are wonderful. Jeremy Webb’s title role is stylized, and despite the aggrandized classical style, his movements are broad and keep the pace exciting for a modern audience. Don Juan’s servant Sganarelle (Michael Milligan) is a pitch-perfect underscore to the play’s action, while Burton Curtis finds his way as the most versatile actor in his portrayal of both a comical peasant and a stoic beggar.

The play draws to a histrionic close, again in keeping with Moli?re’s overblown style, with the most bizarre curtain call in recent knowledge. It may have been censored for its controversial subject in its day, but Don Juan is now being played to the elite society of Washington and their grandmothers. Although there is much to ooh and ahh over in this production, the truth is that there is nothing much at work here that would make anyone gasp with excitement.

Don Juan will be at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., until March 19. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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