Friday, September 28, 2007

Don Juan Serrand

Stephen Epp stalls out in Don Juan Giovanni.

There's just no point in not saying it flat out - the latest ART/Theatre de la Jeune Lune vehicle, Don Juan Giovanni, is so boring it's even dull to pan. I've actually been trying to drag myself to the keyboard to record the slow passage of this postmodernized "mashup" of Molière's Dom Juan and Mozart's Don Giovanni for something like two weeks - come now, I keep telling myself, writing about it can't be any worse than sitting through it was, can it? Admit it, Garvey, you enjoy saying nasty things about bad shows - everyone says so!!! And in the old days, weren't you able to rouse yourself to something like fury over this kind of cynical exploitation of self-satisfied academics and pseudo-intellectuals?

But I was younger then. Less battle-scarred, more certain life was worth living and mankind worth saving, etc. Also, perhaps to its credit, Don Juan Giovanni isn't really up there in my Top Five Most Boring ART Productions Evah. It has an intermission, for one thing, and so its tedium never gets too intense, or malignant; you don't feel, while you're watching it, that your soul is actually being sucked out of you by vampires, the way you did in Three Sisters. People don't flee it, screaming. No, indeedy - because every now and then, somebody starts singing some Mozart, and suddenly everything's wonderful and you're transported to some magical plane on which high seriousness and joy are making eternal love. You don't really care that the show's M.O. makes little sense, as it muddles both Molière's and Mozart's plots (perhaps a better project would be studding Pygmalion with numbers from My Fair Lady). But who cares? Does a Mozart aria really need an excuse?

So go for the singing, which is far stronger than it was in Jeune Lune's restyling of Carmen. Needless to say, said company is working the lovely Christina Baldwin's body as hard as ever, but in such moments as her aria-powered bike ride (at left) her physical grace triumphs over her director's crass machinations. Baldwin's voice is equally lovely and free, but when it comes to vocal chops, her sister, Jennifer Baldwin Peden, is the sib to watch, particularly when powering through the climactic "I quali ecesso." Peden's only vocal equal onstage was Bradley Greenwald, who essayed a memorable Leporello (and proved a witty comedian as well), although I was also often charmed by the sweet tone and dim innocence of Dieter Bierbrauer, in the Masetto-surrogate role of "Peter."

The problem is eventually the singing stops, and you're once again overwhelmed with ennui, derived, no doubt, from the fact that Mozart on Molière fits about as well as tits on a bull. You can, for laughs, read the program notes. Here Stephen Epp and Dominique Serrand, the show's stars and "authors," inform us that their show "is not recommended for people who fear the sense of vertigo that comes from staring into the chasm between life and death." Certainly not - it would only make them jump. For in the end this strange carcass, like the Plymouth-on-training-wheels at its center, is just a vehicle for Epp and Serrand, and neither is much good. Epp, you feel, could make it work if he'd given himself some better kvetching, but Serrand is simply out of his depth, vocally, physically, and charismatically, on the famously unforgiving Loeb stage. His Don Juan is little more than a sketchy professor out to bag another freshman babe in Theatre and Existentialism.

A deeper problem, of course, is that Serrand naively takes the Don at his word - all his words, in fact, even though Molière deploys them as transparent chicanery. While Juan may be a self-styled philosopher-libertine, he's also obviously an addict (indeed, addiction is the subtext of all Molière), and any honest production should make clear his arguments are also excuses, and that Juan's life is the antithesis of freedom: pussy is his smack, his nicotine. What he needs is dinner with Dr. Phil, not the Commendatore. Needless to say, as Juan and Sgnarelle drive in circles on Route 66, it's telegraphed that their road trip is a dead end - but this feels more like the notes that go with today's lecture than any dramatic coup. Serrand can't make Juan's last-minute hints of self-awareness - and his half-hearted feint at genuine freedom - work because he doesn't believe in them personally; too bad they're the heart of the drama (at least the Mozart half). Perhaps some sparks could have flown if Serrand had somehow bridged Molière's critique and Mozart's sympathy, but throughout, Mozart and Molière orbit each other like planets; their two worlds never collide. And frankly, the Beckettian highway Jeune Lune are headed down simply squashes both the show's classical antecedents flat. Alas, there's nothing Jennifer Baldwin Peden's pipes can do to change that.


  1. When Jeune Lune are on track, they're great. I saw the Hamlet they were touring a few years ago Off-Broadway at the New Victory and thought it cut closer to the heart of the play despite the various changes and interpolations to the script then nearly any production I've ever seen. Unbeknownst to me at the time I took my seat I was sitting next to Stephen Epp's family who were all in town to see the show, and when (as I'm wont to do) I struck up a conversation with them they started enthusiastically telling me about the history of the company- this, they assured me was good but not great Jeune Lune; Three Musketeers and Hunchback were MUCH better.

    The Carmen they brought to ART (as defiantly untraditional as either of the two they have been doing currently) was also IMHO a great production. (The less said of Amerika the better) But Don Juan Giovanni, I'll agree with you just didn't fly. More opera and less play would have helped- the interpolation and lengthy passages of dialog slowed things down. The acting/singing etc was all very high rate; (again in untraditional sense- opera purists like my Mom for example would hate it) but where it really fell down was the sheer scope. The production was working with so big a concept that anything less then an out-of-the-park slam would seem tepid, which I though ultimately this did. It almost worked- but not quite and that’s where things started to really go off the rails. Over and over again I found myself wishing they'd stop debating existence in Beckett-like fashion and just Shut Up And Sing. Figaro had some of the same issues, but I ultimately thought that was far more effective… and there was less talk in that one.

  2. Sorry, I remain unsold on Jeune Lune. Their Carmen left me unmoved; Baldwin's torso was divine, true, but she seemed unsure of herself, or what she was supposed to be doing, and overall the opera felt diluted to me rather than intensified. Amerika was a long, tedious ego trip, with, like Carmen, no coherent POV on the material. The Miser was, I felt, the best they've brought to Boston, powered by a fine new translation and a compelling performance from Epp. But frankly, even that struck me as nothing "new" - I don't think Jeune Lune is at all cutting edge; in fact, they strike me as just another branch of the standard post-60s ART bubble.

    I suppose I may still check out Figaro. I'm heartened by your claim that there's more Mozart and less Epp in it.