Directed by Robert Scogin
At the Ruth Page Theatre, Chicago
For Die-Hard G.B.S. Fans Only
When you think of Hell, what do you see? Do you see fire and brimstone? Pitchforks and torture? Or, do you see something entirely different? These assumptions are the groundwork that George Bernard Shaw builds on in Don Juan in Hell. In Shaw’s Hell there is no torture. There is joy, art, and endless pleasure for an eternity, but without contemplation of the purpose of such pleasures, or something beyond this base pleasures, what’s the point? This is where we begin.
Don Juan In Hell is alternately known as Act 3, Scene 2 from Shaw’s play Man and Superman. The scene plays like a full length play in its own right, taking over an hour and a half to execute. In fact, it wasn’t performed with the remainder of Man and Superman until 1915, ten years after the premiere of the original play. Don Juan In Hell begins with Don Juan (Christian Gray) and Dona Ana (Mary Michell) meeting in Hell, much to the dismay of Dona Ana, a pious and strict individual who is completely dismayed that she has found herself in Hell. The two begin to discuss who ends up in Hell and why they end up there when Dona Ana’s father, The Commander (Richard Marlatt), enters, visiting from Heaven. As The Devil (Jack Hickey) approaches, The Commander asks to spend the rest of his eternity in Hell. Again, Dona Ana is surprised. Don Juan, above all, is bored.
What follows is a lengthy philosophical discussion about Heaven, Hell, what makes humans the creatures that they are, as well at the importance of art, logic, and the desire to better oneself. If it sounds like an exercise, it often feels like one. Hell in the 16th century, it turns out, is much like an upper level collegiate philosophy course, brimming with students that are behind on the conversation and those that feel above it. The four actors on stage are certainly up for the challenge and do their best with what they are provided. Jack Hickey and Richard Marlatt are particular standouts, transforming the stage reading into something worth bearing witness to as The Devil and the Commander, respectively.
I recognize that I may not be the ideal audience for such a venture. I admire several of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, Pygmalion in particular. The wit, cutting edge, and timeless themes (for better and worse), all feel absent in Don Juan in Hell. Juxtaposed with high-brow philosophical discussions, there is, in particular, an excruciating joke involving sexual assault amongst prisoners that is rather tasteless. I assure you, I enjoy a good joke, and I enjoy thoughtful discussion. I do not find this in the majority of Don Juan in Hell. The last half of the play is almost entirely uninterrupted, unopposed chest thumping by Don Juan. Without an argument, how is there interest or justification to accept Don’s beliefs? They are merely untested hypotheses. I had little interest in hearing his skewed perspective.
Regardless, I recognize the importance of the rarely performed piece of theatre, and I do believe that the cast that ShawChicago has put together for this performance is an ideal one. There are laughs and some engaging moments, especially in the first half of the scene. I, myself, as someone who was easily twice the junior of the audience, did not take joy in this historical undertaking. George Bernard Shaw holds a unique and critical place in the history of theatre, as does Don Juan in Hell. This is a great stage reading, but not one that I think will win over anyone who questions Shaw’s importance.
Reviewed October 19th, 2014
For more information, checkout the Don Juan In Hell page at theaterinchicago.com
At the Ruth Page Theatre, 1016 N. Dearborn, Chicago, Call 312-587-7390, www.shawchicago.com, tickets $30, Saturdays at 2 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., Mondays at 7 p.m., running time is an 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission, through November 10, 2014.