Screams and Visions

Charlotte Moore takes the antithetical approach to Don Juan in Hell, not so much staging Shaw's dream-dialogue as coordinating it. The actors, an elderly and distinguished quartet, stay seated throughout, their chairs in a line, reading their roles from music stands, as if it were a string quartet rather than the quasi-operatic event Shaw envisioned. (Granville Barker, staging the work's premiere production in 1907, is said to have interrupted one rehearsal to exclaim, "Ladies and gentlemen, will you please remember that this is Italian opera!") Moore makes it through without undue stodginess for three reasons: She has a likable cast; her sense of the play's tonal shifts is strongly supported by Jason A. Cina's lighting; and most of all, her Don Juan, Fritz Weaver, is a true heroic actor, with both the stature and the skill to handle Shaw's high rhetoric. Spoken by dullards, Shaw's elaborately constructed sentences can plod, their clauses piling up like sediment; Weaver makes them flow, like vast rivers widening as they pour into a bay. What's more, he makes their flow seem easy and natural.

Don Juan's position is tricky to understand: a man who loves life but bemoans the body and its frailties, who dreams of nature fulfilling its purpose through mankind but finds pleasure—the trick by which nature lures mankind in—tiresome and mechanical. Weaver not only makes Juan's complex stance comprehensible; he makes it seem sane. Donal Donnelly, as the Devil, brings a similar tart sagacity to the huge speech—the scene's most famous—in which Juan gets the bitter answer that Shaw was willing to articulate but not to accept as final: "The power that governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death."

Jeffrey Wright as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar: heading away from the heart of the matter
photo: Michal Daniel
Jeffrey Wright as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar: heading away from the heart of the matter

Details

Julius Caesar
By William Shakespeare
Delacorte Theatre
Central Park 212-539-8750

Don Juan in Hell
By George Bernard Shaw
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street 212-727-2737

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This face-off, Juan's faith in human progress versus the Devil's Beckettian hedonism, has a strangely apt ring right now. Shaw wrote at the beginning of the century that has seen more of both horror and hope than any previous era: more misery, more mass slaughter, more incredible inventions to make life longer, easier, and more gratifying. Mapping the DNA code brings the hope of wiping out almost every disease, just as the planet seems to be lurching faster than expected toward the cataclysm that will wipe us all out, disease-free or not. Don Juan in Hellcouldn't have been expected to resolve this conflicted prognosis; what's fascinating is that a play written in 1903 could even adumbrate such a conflict. Not even a play, at that: Don Juan in Hellis only a long chunk of lively dialogue, set as the hero's dream in the middle of Man and Superman, an otherwise traditional ("conventional" is always the wrong word for Shaw) romantic comedy about turn-of-the-century girls in pursuit of husbands. A good many serious subjects are touched on, wittily, in the outer play, but its mores and decors today belong to the antique-shop side of Shaw. Don Juan in Hell, though, set 100 years before the outer action, is the property of the future. Unlike Shakespeare, who always insists that omens and predictions tell the truth, Shaw posits alternate predictions, and leaves you to choose. What with ongoing forest fires and oncoming floods, he's more worth listening to than people screaming in Central Park.

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