Monday, June 04, 2007

PLAY: Don Juan in Chicago

<--- Photo/Monica Freisem

David Ives meant Don Juan in Chicago as one of his patented verbal comedies, but by reversing the expected, he has created an even better love-struck origin story than the historic fables of the womanizing Don Juan. Simply making a bet just doesn't raise the stakes enough: no, here our Don Juan makes a deal with the devil: not for sex (he's too busy with reading to lose his virginity) but to live forever. It's the small print that turns our naive nerd into a seducer: if he doesn't "romance" a different woman every night, he'll forfeit his soul (and that of his servant, Leporello, who is unwillingly along for the ride). Worse than sex turning into a chore (think Wilt Chamberlain, multiplied by eight) is Mephistopheles's extra twist: the first woman he sleeps with, Doña Elvira, is the woman of his dreams, whom he is doomed never to sleep with again, lest he lose his immortality. And if that weren't bad enough, she becomes immortal too, a constant reminder of his inconstancy. Oh, and even worse (for them, not us): every time the devil comes around or the seduction gets heavy, they start speaking in verse.

Cut to 146,000 women later, Chicago, where Don Juan now goes by Don Johnson, and Leporello goes by Lefty, and the swank castle has eroded to a dank bachelor pad in the slums. His latest "conquest," Sandy, was one of his victims 23 years ago; Doña Elvira, disguised as a southerner, is still trying to sleep with "The Don," and his only recourse may be to steal the sweet, naive Zoey away from his neighbor, Mike. To quote the show, "It's either cum, or kingdom come."

Owen M. Smith's direction nails the enunciation on both, with a nice paralleling scene change between Spain and Illinois, and his cast manages to balance the sex with doom without going overboard with either. The actors are also great with Ives's wit, rhyming iniquitous with ubiquitous or cupidity with stupidity without batting an eyelash. Of particular note is Doug Nyman, who wins our hearts with his plaintive asides and grabs our attention with his energetic explicatives.

In the first act, the action runs a little slow, though it's spiced up by our asthmatic Queen of a devil, played to a delightful T by Stephen Balantzian. However, once the jokes have all been established and the stage set, Ives runs into a full-blown farce, with windows, doors, and beds all popping open, and character twists flying in and out through any and all openings. The energy builds into a nice comic crescendo, and the wordplay, steady throughout, keeps us engaged in the somewhat predictable story. From alliteration ("the pinnacle of pulchritude") to syllogism ("I have no reason to live, but that's no reason not to live"), Don Juan in Chicago is just a well-mannered delight.

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