By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Dan Foss and Kerstin Broockmann
Produced by Rogue Theater, Chicago
“If you don’t like my preaching, you must lump it. I really cannot help it.”—Shaw
A Most Shavian Dialectic Brings Nietzsche to the Stage
If you enjoy George Bernard Shaw’s philosophical musings in audio form, Don Juan in Hell is the perfect play for you. Rogue Theatre, which has been on hiatus since 2007 due to its founders starting a family, has returned with the third act of Shaw’s 1906 play Man and Superman, which they performed, minus Don Juan in Hell, during their inaugural season in 2002. The concept of the group is to do plays about “rogues, rebels, misfits, and outcasts,” making Don Juan a suitable character for them to focus on, but also a uniquely challenging one, in that Shaw felt he had to reinterpret the character to keep him relevant in a post-Ibsen world. The current production is very smart, but at the extreme end of Shaw’s verbose style, even cut down to ninety minutes.
We first see Don Juan (Nate White) wearing a Beckettian mid-twentieth century suit and hat, slouching against the platform in set designer Nicci Schumacher’s black box Hell. He is approached by a crone (Nellie Ognacevic), who has just died, and is distraught to find herself in a place that seems very different from the Heaven she had spent her whole life hoping to gain admission to. He tells her that’s because she’s in Hell, but not to worry too much about that, since she’s in no pain and may change her appearance to whatever she pleases. She restores herself to youth, and reveals herself as Dona Ana, the woman whose father Don Juan slew while pursuing her, but who later returned as a statue and dragged him to Hell. But no matter, Don Juan says, they are friends now, and the Commander is getting bored with Heaven and will likely move here, soon.
When the Commander (Mark Habert) and the Devil (Lew Wallace) appear, a debate breaks out over what, exactly, makes a person happy. It turns out the dead can move from Heaven to Hell at will, but the two areas are designed to hold people of very different personality types. Hell is a place of not only limitless sensual pleasure, but congenial company and freedom from responsibility. Heaven is a place of challenge and asceticism. The Devil believes that he has provided humans with paradise, but Don Juan is bored, and wants to improve himself until he becomes a god through contemplation in Heaven, rather than be a slave to reality, or satisfied with a shallow imagination. Dona Ana and the Commander must make their choices, as well.
Shaw wrote this play when he was being heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, which is why his hero, and there is no doubt Shaw is mostly on Don Juan’s side, talks so much of a “life-force” which guides life-forms along, making them superior with each new form and generation. Late in the play, we finally arrive at why Shaw picked the Don Juan characters as depicted by Mozart for this discussion: he thought they would provide an interesting frame for gender politics. Don Juan, as played by White, is a middle-aged man who has fulfilled his appetite for pleasure, but is still an impassioned, arrogant debater. He goes on long tirades, mostly directed at Dona Ana, but when Shaw allows her to speak in her and her sex’s defense, Ognacevic does so with clarity, and the driest whiff of humor. Wallace is a true silver-tongued devil in his arguments with the Don, and Habert’s statuesque Commander is affable, but still retains some grit and firmness.
Though usually performed separately, Don Juan in Hell is part of Man and Superman, and serves mainly to summarize ideas with little pretense of a plot. Part of me wonders if performing the play was the main point, or whether it served mainly to entice people to read Shaw’s dedicatory essay, which I recommend doing after seeing it. I enjoy reading August Strindberg, another writer heavily influenced by Nietzsche, who explores personal relationships, though unlike Shaw, Strindberg didn’t lose track of the well-being of children when discussing ideal family arrangements. Shaw wanted to discredit romantic/melodramatic notions of love, and in this section of the play refers to children only briefly, and as a motivating factor in women’s controlling behavior, which Don Juan claims he was always trying to avoid (this was one of those cases where it was a relief when Dona Ana finally got a retort in, edge-wise). Indeed, the drawback to this play is the lack of tension in hearing the characters lecture each other, which I do not blame the directors for, given the material. Still, if modernist discourse is where your passion lies, this production will provide you with it eloquently. And, of course, for Shaw fans, it’s not to be missed.
Reviewed May 29, 2015
For more information, see Don Juan in Hell’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Side Project Theatre, 1439 W Jarvis, Chicago. Tickets are $15 with discounts for seniors, students, and industry; to order, visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1471546. Plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through June 28. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.