Emma Rice's "Don John," a brash, bawdy and vastly entertaining gloss on the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-Lorenzo da Ponte operatic masterpiece "Don Giovanni," is one of the triumphs of the 2009 Spoleto Festival USA. It will be playing through June 6 at Memminger Auditorium and can be recommended to all but the most innocent and most squeamish spectators.
Rice is the artistic director of England's Kneehigh Theater, a troupe founded in 1978 and described as "an ever changing ensemble, a kind of strange family, many of whom come from, or have chosen to live in, Cornwall, the extreme Southwest tip of the British Isles." By now, the company has played throughout its homeland and beyond, offering decidedly quirky productions of everything from Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" to Noel Coward's "Brief Encounter."
"Don John" follows the opera closely, complete with booming fragments of the Overture, the Finale and other scenes, transmogrified electronically, as well as an amusing revision of the great Serenade, plucked out live by a trio of musicians. The dubious sidekick figure of Leporello, here named Nobby, has a new "catalogue" aria, which he declaims while projecting slide photographs of the Don's many amorous conquests. As in Mozart-da Ponte, the Don does not escape retribution, although in Rice's update, he is wearing drag and is carried off to hell by a military man (Dave Mynne) who strolls onto the stage crooning "White Christmas."
To those who will object to the depravity and violence of "Don John," of which there is plenty, I would argue that this was always, at heart, a very ugly story, a chronicle of seductions that are really closer to rapes, complete with occasional murders along the way, and that we see the Don's behavior through a less forgiving light than did the mostly male audience of the 18th century. Still, it must be admitted that Rice's reconstitution of this anti-hero, while loutish, inebriated and cruel, still maintains a certain dark charm.
It was a bold thought to cast an Icelandic actor, Gisli Orn Gardarsson, as the Don; his seeming hesitancy with the English language merely added to the character's animal inarticulation, right out of early Brando, all danger, stale booze and star quality. Nina Dogg Filippusdottir made a touching, compromised Anna, Patrycja Kujawska an urgently sensual Zerlina and Amy Marston a shattered, maniacal Elvira. In the role of Alan, Carl Grose proved a superbly lithe physical comedian. Mike Shepherd, a founder of Kneehigh, was an appropriately unctuous Nobby, and Craig Johnson was properly paralyzed and ineffectual as Derek. Emily Dobson, Polly Motley, Helen Tiplady and Sally Williams performed deftly as stagehands, singers and writhing dancers — quite a workout!
Dom Lawton read the words and poems of author Anna Maria Murphy with that musical reverence for the sound of spoken words that is so often an English gift. The music, by Stu Barker, was a mixture of high and low, pastoral folk melodies in intriguing arrangements melded with deliberately cheesy rock that was only slightly more characterful than the best of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The setting is in the strike-ridden late 1970s, and there are references to former British prime ministers James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.
World off its axis
One hesitates to denounce too harshly "Story of a Rabbit," a theater show by a writer, director and actor who calls himself Hugh Hughes, although the temptation is surely there. I am willing to forgive "Rabbit" much for its spot-on evocation of the massive, mind-numbing confusion that follows the death of a parent, which is curiously unlike any other death and affects the newly bereaved like an exhausting and debilitating flu that refuses to lift. Hughes' evocation of a world off its axis, of the near- impossibility of fulfilling even a simple task such as buying a train ticket, corresponds exactly to remembered experience, my own and that of others, and I can think of few other works of art that sum up this aftermath so viscerally.
We are on tender ground here, and I would be glad to learn that other viewers found the rest of "Story of a Rabbit" more compelling than I did. Nevertheless, if I were Hughes' editor, I would have him throw away at least nine-tenths of his piece, content himself with the five or six cogent minutes he has created, and then build from there, slowly and mercilessly, until he has something that might sustain the attention of an audience.
In the first half hour of "Story of a Rabbit," virtually nothing happened (which is all right under certain circumstances) but it happened uninterestingly (which is never all right). Hughes came off as a cross between a Mister Rogers for grown-ups, a befuddled secular minister who hadn't quite thought through the day's sermon, and a lounge comic who isn't nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Over the course of an interminable hour and a half, he served tea to audience members, led us through memory exercises (we were asked to shout out things that happened to us in 1995, 1996, 1997 — you get the idea), and broke up his narrative again and again with trivial asides and explanations of what he was going to show us next.
"Story of a Rabbit" is mostly a solo performance, although Hughes's longtime friend, Aled Williams, played ditties on keyboards and stringed instruments and the audience was divided in half to sing a two-part round. The spoken "insights" into the show's ostensible subject — death — were glib and sophomoric, a seeming effort to link the death of a neighbor's pet rabbit and that of a beloved father. "Show, don't tell" is among the first lessons offered to would-be writers, and it is one that Hughes should take to heart. When he "shows," as in his recreation of grief's devastation, he is sometimes achingly effective. When he "tells," he is too often a garrulous bore.