at the Chicago Cultural Center
Don Juan in Hell
at the Evanston Public Library
In George Bernard Shaw’s 1908 comedy Getting Married, the worldly-wise Bishop Bridgenorth asserts, “When you give the devil fair play he loses his case.” The sentiment is certainly Shaw’s own: a statement of faith in a universe governed by a purposeful, progressive life force. Rather than try to suppress inquiry into humanity’s worst side, Shaw argued, we should foster debate on philosophical and social issues, inviting a free exchange of ideas and readily changing our laws and customs to reflect the creative evolution of human intellect and sexuality. Let us have discussion and debate, he urged–fond as he was of the sound of his own clashing opinions stuck in the mouths of conflicting characters. Words, the expression of human reason, will help us make a better world.
The utopia promised at the start of the century looks pretty dismal at the end of it. But Shaw’s elegantly phrased, iconoclastically witty tracts for the stage continue to draw audiences happy to listen to literate arguments, even over issues whose novelty or naughtiness has long since passed. The social and sexual politics of Edwardian England were very different from those of 1990s America, but when played with respect for their intelligence and musicality, Shaw’s “disquisitory” plays–Socratic dialogues dressed up as drawing-room comedies–still delight, disturb, and even surprise.
Two current productions focus on Shaw the wordsmith. Eschewing all but bare-bones setting and costume, Getting Married and Don Juan in Hell are both played as readers theater, with actors using scripts as they speak their dialogue from music stands. The lack of visual distraction doesn’t seem to bother the audiences a whit; finely crafted wordplay is as inherently theatrical as elaborate stagecraft. But the two shows reflect very different attitudes about performing Shaw: Getting Married, an imperfect but interesting piece, is treated with close, pleasurable attention to the quality of the text, while Don Juan in Hell, a great script, is wrecked with stupid shtick and nightclub vulgarity.
Written between 1900 and 1903 as a dream sequence in the four-act Man and Superman and first performed as a separate work in 1907, Don Juan in Hell reworks the legend of the Spanish aristocrat who’s sent to hell after seducing a young noblewoman and killing her father in a duel. From the start Shaw turns the tale on its head: his Juan is no libidinous libertine, but an aloof intellectual torn between his fascination with the world and his desire to remain detached from it. Don Juan is, of course, the sexually shy Shaw, whose erotic ambivalence informs so many of his protagonists.
But Shaw is also able to give the devil fair play, and Lucifer delivers some of the playwright’s most acerbic assessments of mankind: “the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.” Far from the vindictive demon of Dante’s Inferno, Shaw’s devil is a well-bred gent devoted to pleasure–the social arbiter of a world very much like earth, where “there is no hope, and consequently no duty, no work, nothing to be gained by praying, nothing to be lost by doing what you like,” as Juan’s victim Don Gonzalo puts it. Bored with the heaven to which he was dispatched, Gonzalo ends up switching places with the man who killed him. Meanwhile his daughter Ana is also consigned to hell, but she’s much less sanguine about it: “I am a lady, and a faithful daughter of the church. . . . Oh! and I might have been so much wickeder!”
Inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Shaw consciously wrote Don Juan in Hell as an operatic quartet for actors, with image, structure, and idea substituting for musical melody, harmony, and rhythm. Biting epigrams and elegant exchanges are juxtaposed with long, arialike speeches rich in contrasting thoughts. The material is, pardon the expression, damned difficult, and if Northlight Theatre’s revival merely fell short of the script’s potential it would be forgivable.
But director Mike Nussbaum allows his star performer–comedian and radio host Aaron Freeman as the devil–to run roughshod over the text, obscuring Shaw’s arguments in the process. Spewing a stream of ad-libbed one-liners–Michael Jordan, O.J. Simpson, President Clinton, and the Internet were his topics the night I was there–Freeman brings a coarse touch to a role that requires delicacy and nuance. He exploits ancient fire-and-brimstone cliches about the devil, rather than deflating them as Shaw intended. In the densely structured soliloquies about man’s inevitable extinction, Freeman goes for cheap laughs with a southern-preacher caricature not unlike his old Jesse Jackson impersonations (complete with an “A-men” here and there); given that Freeman is African-American, it seems like racial pandering as well. (When Juan and Gonzalo broadly wink as they agree that “the devil is not so black as he is painted,” the joke comes perilously close to a slur.)
The other actors, thankfully, don’t try to compete with Freeman. B.J. Jones’s Juan starts out as an amusingly glib roue, but when the character’s philosophical depths begin to emerge Jones seems to be just reading words on a page. Meg Thalken, assigned the admittedly underwritten role of Dona Ana, comes off as a sitcom shrew, with a repertoire of aggrieved facial expressions recalling The Beverly Hillbillies’ Nancy Kulp. Nussbaum, a past master of the readers-theater form, is delightfully impish and spontaneous as Gonzalo; every word he says seems to have popped into his brain the moment before he says it. Perhaps it was in search of a similar immediacy that he allowed Freeman to muck up his lines; I can’t think of any other reason why an artist with Nussbaum’s credentials would have allowed this travesty.
Shaw Chicago has been offering concert readings of lesser-known Shaw plays for two seasons now, employing some of the city’s best actors in plays no professional company could afford to mount in full productions. Getting Married, written a year after Don Juan in Hell’s premiere, is a flawed but often funny examination of the institution of marriage as reflected in the divergent experiences and opinions of a community of eccentric landed gentry. Bishop Bridgenorth is preparing to give away his daughter Edith in matrimony–but she’s decided to call the whole thing off after reading a pamphlet describing married women’s legal obligations and restrictions. Her fiance, Cecil, is also having second thoughts–he loves Edith for her independence and outspokenness, but is concerned that he’ll be liable if she’s sued for libel. While a horde of guests wait in the nearby church, Cecil and Edith try to write a partnership agreement that will supersede their marriage vows. Joining in the project are the bishop and his wife; the bishop’s brother Boxer, a blustery military man who became a war hero trying to get himself killed in battle because the woman he loved rejected him; the bishop’s spinster sister-in-law Lesbia, who spurns Boxer’s advances because, though she wants children, society has decreed she must have a man in the house to have them; the bishop’s other brother, Reggie, who has posed as a wife beater to give his young spouse the divorce she wants; Zenobia Collins, the town’s notoriously fickle mayor, who’s been writing the bishop anonymous love letters; and St. John Hotchkiss, a cheeky young snob modeled on Shaw himself, who delights in outraging the others with his unorthodox pronouncements. It’s Hotchkiss who suggests that Cecil and Edith forego marriage in favor of a contract–one of several ideas broached in the play that seem familiar today (paying wives for domestic work, open marriage, and no-fault divorce are others). And it’s in response to Hotchkiss’s idea that the bishop asserts the rightness of letting the devil make his case; for if marriage is an unworkably rigid response to men and women’s need for love, companionship, and children, Shaw suggests, a legal contract is even worse.
At their weakest, these characters are merely mouthpieces for the prickly playwright. But under the sensitive direction of Andrew Callis (who has cut some 40 minutes from the play and added Shaw’s hilarious character descriptions), the actors overcome the script’s didacticism as well as the absence of stage movement and design, creating amusing, quirky characters straight out of a turn-of-the-century village. Standouts include Duane Sharp, hilarious as the blustery Boxer; Belinda Bremner, suggesting both the satisfaction and the emotional cost of Lesbia’s obstinate independence; Don Brearley, deliciously droll as the bishop; Lisa Tejero as the imperious Edith; and Brendon Fox as a smug Hotchkiss.
At the end of Don Juan in Hell a photograph of Shaw is projected on the wall of the library lecture hall where the show takes place–an unconvincing effort to invoke the playwright’s presence after trashing his text. No photo of Shaw appears during the presentation of Getting Married, nor is one needed; he lives on in the actors’ respect not only for his words but for the audience.