ORANGE — The spirited philosophical debate in George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" is a symphony of words, with the legendary lover Don Juan sounding like a moody clarinet, his would-be conquest Don~a Ana a skittish flute, her father a sturdy bass and the devil a fiery violin.
Lifted from the 1903 play "Man and Superman," this discussion among some of literature's most famous libertines and prudes is given a loving, detailed staging by Shakespeare Orange County at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre. Yet its melodies tumble forth in fits and starts. A performance will catch fire for a few moments, then dim out; another will catch and do the same--intermittently fine solo passages that don't add up to a satisfying whole.
"Don Juan in Hell" is an extended dream sequence--it lasts an hour and 50 minutes here, with an intermission--that expands upon the overall play's ideas of a life force that drives humankind toward an ever more advanced state, evolving ultimately into a "superman."
The main story tells of a vital young woman who's determined to advance this process by marrying a scandalously intelligent libertine; in parallel action, "Don Juan" transforms them into figures from the legend of Don Juan. In these new guises, they discuss morality, equality, art, religion and more, with particular emphasis on the natures of heaven and hell, the conflicting impulses of the human soul and the eternal attraction-repulsion between the sexes.
Because of its length and its easy excision, "Don Juan in Hell" is generally dropped in performances of "Man and Superman." Occasionally, as here, it is presented on its own, becoming a major event for lovers of language and ideas.
Director Carl Reggiardo understands the significance of this event, and he and his designers strive for maximum panache in a minimal staging. As when "Don Juan" was performed for the first time in America in a legendary 1951 presentation, the actors are dressed in evening wear, performing from scripts that rest on music stands. The result is simple, elegant; the music stands underscore the text's musical composition.
Tom Whyte delivers the most compelling performance as Don Juan, who--having landed in hell after his legendary conquests--has grown bored of a place where residents devote themselves to what he now sees as trivial pursuits. His handsome face tinged with melancholy, Whyte expounds on Juan's disappointment, his voice ebbing and flowing in a calm, slightly disdainful tone.
John-Frederick Jones--trim, with a snowy white beard--is a dapper devil, trying to talk Juan out of his funk. Yet his performance, as sonorous as it is, fails to capture the infernal one's playfulness and devastating charm. Tall and deep-voiced, Daniel Bryan Cartmell is sturdy enough as Don~a Ana's father. But Maria Pavone's Don~a Ana is all surface and no depth. Don~a Ana should be almost frighteningly alive even in death, still hungry to give birth to a superman. Pavone falls far wide of that mark.
In a particularly nice touch, lighting designer Ron Coffman paints the stage in peaceful pinks and purples or blazing reds, as mood demands. And on a cyclorama in the background, he emphasizes these themes in abstract scrawls of color.
As humorous as it is thoughtful, Shaw's text delivers such priceless passages as these:
On eternity: "Hell is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues. All the wickedness on earth is done in their name: Where else but in hell should they have their reward?"
On the nature of humankind: " . . . in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence and famine."
And the other side of human nature: "I tell you that as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it."
* "Don Juan in Hell," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University campus, 301 E. Palm Ave., Orange. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 6. $22-$24. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Tom Whyte: Don Juan
Daniel Bryan Cartmell: The Commander
John-Frederick Jones: The Devil
Maria Pavone: Don~a Ana
A Shakespeare Orange County production. Written by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Carl Reggiardo. Lights: Ron Coffman. Sound: Craig Brown. Stage manager: Wendy Ruth.