Brendan Pelsue

Donned If You Do . . .

Review of Don Juan at Yale School of Drama In Don Juan, the life and times of a cad, Molière sought to skewer some of the pieties of his time, presenting Don Juan as a heartless seducer who doesn’t hide behind hypocrisy. He lies to women to lure them into bed, marrying and separating from his duped spouses with alarming alacrity, but he’s true to his principles. Life is a farce, so why not have some fun with it?

Molière’s Don Juan, the third Yale School of Drama thesis show this season, directed by Andrej Visky as an adaptation, with dramaturg Samantha Lazar and playwright Brian Pelsue, from Pelsue’s translation, benefits greatly from its transposition into a period much like ours. The comedy of the early going—up through its biggest laughs in Acts II and III—derives from a light comic touch that makes Don Juan, who enters with a towel around his waist and a turban towel atop his head, a laughable figure. As played by James Cusati-Moyer, Don Juan is a roguish libertine, more jaded than seductive. His servant Sganarelle (Aubie Merrylees) is a cartoonish accomplice who clues us in on his master’s proclivities while both envying him and looking on aghast.

The best idea here is the presentation of the “Jersey Shore” region where Don Juan, on a boat to lure a damsel into his clutches, gets capsized, nearly drowns, and is rescued by, literally, a clown. Pierrot (Bradley James Tejeda) wears a Ronald McDonald bozo wig, a red squeezie nose, and the motley of the carny clown. His vacillating girl, Charlotte (Ann Katherine Hägg), is clad in the red and white uniform of a burger-joint waitress and pants for a glimpse of the aristocratic bearing of Don Juan. Striding onstage in the black cloak and distressed black jeans of a rocker, thick locks aswirl, Don Juan seems a sex-drugs-and rock’n’roll fantasy in the flesh. Think of how a rock star like Freddie Mercury could milk a sensual androgyny that kept both males and females fascinated. As Sganarelle lets us know early on, the Don fucks anything that moves.

So when Don Juan saves the life of Don Carlos (Aaron Luis Profumo), the brother of Elvira (Jenelle Chu), the latest woman Don Juan has wronged, and Carlos hesitates about avenging his sister’s honor and his father’s death (the Don offed the General in a duel), Don Alonzo (Tejeda), his more vehement brother, accuses Carlos of being in love with Juan. It’s that kind of world. Don Juan wraps 'em all around his finger. The broad comedy of the play’s dealings with family honor and the Don’s efforts to court two girls at once—the wide-eyed Charlotte as well as tough-cookie Mathilde (Ariana Venturi, remarkably skanky)—opens the possibility that the play is peopled with clowns, so that themes like seduction, thwarted love, and vengeance can all be played for laughs. In such a world, no one can be deserving of any response but derision.

This Don Juan comes close to that vision, but a different tone comes into play in the later acts, after a high-spirited visit to a mausoleum, where the General is interred beneath a statue, leads to a date with destiny: the statue of the General will dine with Don Juan who must then, in turn, be the guest of the General. We move then to Juan’s palatial estate—made somber by, on its high walls, huge “paintings” that are actually ghostly videos of, it seems, some of the many women Don Juan has seduced and abandoned. Here we see Don Juan squirm his way out of a lawsuit, deride the good intentions of Elvira, and, in a visit from his pious father (Julian Elijah Martinez), face his dad’s wrath and disinheritance.

The darker shadings of the later acts reveal the extent to which Molière’s comic touch is not up to creating the requisite pathos we must feel for Don Juan to care what becomes of him. Our hero is given a notable speech in which he defends himself—“a fashionable vice is as good as a virtue”—in terms that might be agreeable enough to our own amoral age with its “Wolf of Wall Street” protagonists, but it’s not easy to put ourselves in Don Juan’s place. Flouncing about in a serpentine silk gown that shadows in gaudy eddies his every flamboyant gesture, Don Juan, clad otherwise in rather gladiatorial black briefs, with a torso even more so, is an epicene epigone of the philosophes, swilling cognac and spitting malevolent bon mots.

The play’s end seems to give us a question mark in place of a resolution. Is this a Don Juan who has taken upon himself the sins of our self-serving era? Is he a child again, returned to the darkness that precedes birth and follows death? We’re left to make sense of what we see, as the play is wordless after Don Juan, nothing loathe, follows the General’s statue, which has become a fetching sprite-like female (Venturi). One thing is certain: Don Juan isn’t so smug any more.

Along the way, there’s great support work, particularly from Merrylees as a grab-bag of reactions, second-thoughts, doubletakes, narrative asides, and, at one point, a speech of riotous “reasoning” that makes Daffy Duck seem a paragon of profundity. Profumo’s Don Carlos by way of a lower-order DeNiro is spot on, matched by Tejeda’s more Pescian brother, complete with meth beard, a Hell’s Angel to Juan’s sympathy for the devil; then there’s the already mentioned comic abilities of Hägg and Venturi as dim, richly imagined “babes” you wish would stay longer, and Chu’s Elvira, in her first appearance, all wild hair, bleeding mascara and virginal white gown matched with black leather jacket and boots, is a sight to be seen as she dresses down our hero in terms worthy of a steely heroine, only to show up far too much later in the nun-like apparel of a bleeding-heart doormat. Martinez, as a prayerful, pan-handling beggar, and a bike messenger, gets a lot of mileage out of minor bits and, as Juan’s overbearing father, has no choice but to play it straight. Indeed, the succession of “straight men” in the later going makes us long for more comical hi-jinx from Juan. Instead, we get a brief glimpse of a marked change of tact as Juan seems to repent, spooked by that talking statue at his table.

Memorably costumed, agreeably staged—with lots of open space for Cusati-Moyer’s stage-prowling stride—with a good grasp of how to keep things moving, Visky’s Don Juan benefits from Pelsue’s ear for comic speech, fleshed out with occasional taglines from movies, the lingua franca of our day that makes us all Don Juanna-bes.

 

Don Juan By Molière Translaed by Brendan Pelsue Adapted by Andrej Visky, Brendan Pelsue, and Samantha Lazar Directed by Andrej Visky

Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer and Sound Designer: Jing (Annie) Yin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Production Dramaturg: Samantha Lazar; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko

Yale School of Drama January 27-31, 2015

Meet the New Don

The third and final Yale School of Drama thesis show opens this week. Andrej Visky, a third-year director from Romania, directs Molière’s Don Juan, a prose tragi-comedy that tells the famous story of Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, a free-thinking libertine who believes that the pleasures of life—particularly women—are meant to be enjoyed, a view that leads ultimately to his downfall. Molière incorporates commedia dell’arte aspects into the play, so that there is a decidedly comic cast to the tale, and that is one of the qualities that attracted Visky to the project. “The play is a great intersection of tragedy and comedy,” he says, allowing him to “approach weighty thought through laughter.” Molière, as Visky sees it, is interested in an overview of society to create a comedy of manners that includes beggars and the high-born, and, as he says, “the supernatural makes an appearance” as well. When I pointed out that both Don Juan and the first thesis show this year, The Master and Margarita, feature the threat of damnation, Visky pointed out that his Don Juan “ends ambiguously,” leaving the audience to decide if Don Juan’s fate is “damnation or liberation.”

An atheist in a Catholic culture, Don Juan flaunts the moral edicts of his day—a factor that could make him seem, in a Romantic reading, akin to the kind of artist who lives only to express himself, or, as Visky sees him, a possible revolutionary figure, “a seeker of meaning.” The Don’s sidekick, the servant Sganarelle, is on hand to offer asides on his master’s self-serving proclivities; while attracted to his master’s lifestyle, Sganarelle also represents a deflationary, common-sense outlook. And there is, for Visky, an aspect of the play that is entirely relevant to our day and age: namely, the “cost of freedom.” Are we free to do as we please or do we have obligations to others, and to the future?

With a cast of eight players, Don Juan, like the other thesis shows this year, will feature many of the fine young actors in the Yale program, including Ariana Venturi, James Cusati-Moyer, and Aaron Profumo, all featured in Master and Margarita, and Bradley Tejeda, who appeared in the Yale Repertory's production of Arcadia last fall. Visky, who trained and worked as an actor himself in his homeland, feels that he “understands the actor’s process, the means, and what it takes” to create a character. For him, theater is a means “to touch the soul” and to break through the everyday numbness of life, but, at the same time, he recognizes that, in “the age of television,” compared to Molière’s day, it is much harder to keep the audience’s attention. “There are so many demands on our time.”

Don Juan is the only thesis show this year to use the full proscenium stage at the University Theater. Visky feels his show’s “operatic dimension” requires it. Central to his staging is “a huge box” that will support the play’s many transitions and scenic changes. Act II, for instance, recalls a “broken-down boardwalk culture” as one might find it on a seedy Jersey shore. Indeed, Visky knew from the start that he wanted his thesis project to be an adaptation. Working with third-year dramaturg Samantha Lazar and a new translation by Yale School of Drama second-year playwright Brendan Pelsue, Visky has aimed to bring Don Juan into our day, with “comedy surprises” that connect very much to our world.

Visky feels drawn to “comedy with a serious spin.” “I don’t believe in a theater that’s comfortable,” he says and likens the process of creating theater to giving birth—as opposed to, for instance, a factory. What comes out is intimately connected to all who take part, we might say, and for Visky the purpose is a “fight for ideas that will be important to others and that get people interested.” Part and parcel of that purpose is the notion that even a classic—as Romanian theater understood in the Stalinist period—can carry a social or political meaning relevant to a much later period. Born three years before the Romanian Revolution and the ousting of Ceauşescu in 1989, Visky still can draw on a cultural memory of theater that incorporated coded messages in classic works of earlier times and places. That tendency should serve him in good stead in creating, with his collaborators and cast, a “fresh feel for the sexual politics” of this tale of the most famous womanizer in literature, his name synonymous with anything from a playboy to a lecher to a kind of Faustian lover of the flesh, in defiance of spiritual or ethical concerns.

“We are all Don Juans,” Visky says, encouraged by consumer society to seek out new sensations, new products, as though our lives’ meaning depends on it. Perhaps live theater, in the era of screens and simulacra, might be a way of finding new meaning in old affinities.

Don Juan By Molière Translated by Brendan Pelsue Adapted by Andrej Visky, Brendan Pelsue, and Samantha Lazar Directed by Andrej Visky

Scenic Design: Alexander Woodward; Costume Design: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Design: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Design: Jing Yin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Dramaturgy: Samantha Lazar; Stage Management: Avery Trunko

Yale School of Drama University Theater January 27-31, 2015

 

Cafe Rrrwha?

You know the drill: one age’s rebellion is another age’s nostalgia act. That’s in popular culture. In the fine arts, it tends to be: one age’s rebellion is another age’s academic assignment. In the pop world, nothing ages as fast as the parental generation’s youth; in the fine arts, it’s all a bit like the nefarious character played by John Huston in Chinatown (1974) says: “Politicians, old buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” In the fine arts, it’s academic study that confers respectability. Dada, pataphysics, cubists, Theater of the Absurd, Theatre of Cruelty, the Beats—they’re all in museums and on syllabi. And what gets lost, often, is what made it all so exciting in the first place. Enter The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion, the show currently playing at the Yale Cabaret, conceived and directed by dramaturgy student David E. Bruin, an effort to stage early works by María Irene Fornés and Edward Albee—darlings of theater and drama coursework—as though Greenwich Village were still inhabited by bohemians and not pop culture elites. We’re not at the Yale Cab, we’re at Café Ubu (named after Alfred Jarry’s comic-absurdist-tragic figure) and, as the dated posters and portraits on the walls of Reid Thompson's set will tell you, it’s around 1962. JFK hasn’t been assassinated yet and the Beatles are still in Liverpool.

It’s to the credit of Bruin and his cast that they play the material—including the introductory bits that include some squabbling about a petition to stop that freeway extension Robert Moses is planning for the Village—straight, without any hint of ‘beatnik’ send-ups. The point is, one quickly gathers, the drama student of today might well be pining for the days before theatrical fellowships and “courses on X”—the days when the likes of Albee and Fornés hung out in collectivities that were already looking back to ad hoc artist congeries like dada and other manifesto-spouting “movements.” Remember when it wasn’t art if you got paid for it? And it wasn’t for a grade either. Hey, kinda like Yale Cabaret . . .

Crazy Shepherds is an instructive and entertaining evening. Plays like Fornés’ The Successful Life of 3 and Albee’s The Sandbox should resist even blackbox staging. These are plays for a cabaret, a café, a living room, almost. Maybe a playground’s actual sandbox (do those still exist?) for the latter. Bruin and company rightly grasp that to do such work justice you have to be willing to go back to its time to see it as it might have been. Historians of the arts have to do this; theater audiences much less, and it’s great to see knowing dramaturgs and others giving it a shot and taking us along with them.

And you certainly get your money’s worth: not only Successful Life and Sandbox, but also a romp through a truncated take on Jarry’s Ubu roi (with a very spirited Ubu from Brendan Pelsue) and a performance piece featuring bits from Part III of Howl. Annelise Lawson, reciting, is the star of the evening as she also plays a man (who imagines himself as Zorro at one point) in Successful Life, Ubu’s queen in Ubu roi, and, very effectively, the old woman in Sandbox, as well as going into electroshock convulsions for the Howl recital (Howl is dedicated to Allen Ginsberg’s fellow inmate at Columbia Psychiatric Institute, Carl Solomon, who did receive electroshock treatment at Rockland State Hospital).

Elsewhere there’s tasteful violin accompaniment by Eli Epstein-Deutsch and atmospheric vocalizing by Jenelle Chu, who also plays the woman in Successful Life, a ditzy symbol of female emptiness—or is that an empty symbol of feminine ditziness—while Lawson and Pelsue (the latter in a mode reminiscent of Dick York on Bewitched) enact an absurdist’s take on “masculine rivalry” (yes, that was once a buzz term). Chu is also a patient “mommy” to Pelsue’s “daddy” as they wait for granny (Lawson) to give up the ghost in Sandbox. The plays by Fornés and Albee both demonstrate the phase of incipient genius, still. And the evening is best if you can forget you’re watching YSD students playing at their grandparents’ rebellion and imagine you’re watching amateur theatricals reinvent theater.

At the end of the evening, a hat is passed, but, rather than pitching in, the audience is asked to extract fortune-cookie-like one-liners. Many in the audience, no doubt, won’t realize the lines are taken from William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (c. 1790, following the French Revolution); “everything old is new again,” as the song says. And some things are so innovative they can never become conventional.

 

The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion Conceived and directed by David E. Bruin Featuring: Maria Irene Fornes’ The Successful Life of 3 and Edward Albee’s The Sandbox

Cast: David E. Bruin, Jenelle Chu, Eli Epstein-Deutsch, Annelise Lawson, Brendan Pelsue, Gretchen Wright; Dramaturg: Phillip Howze; Set: Reid Thompson; Lights: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer/Sound: Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Costumes: Asa Benally; Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Producer: Melissa Zimmerman

 

Yale Cabaret March 20-22, 2014