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The Ladies' Man 'Don Juan': A mostly female team is bringing Moliere's tale of the ultimate seducer to Center Stage.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Don Juan. You know the guy: Mr. Love-'em-and-leave-'em. The ultimate lothario. Lust incarnate. The master of the one-night stand. But what happens when this theatrical character falls into the hands of an alm" is how dramaturg Catherine Sheehy describes it. But at the same time, Sheehy, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Drama, insists, "[Director Irene] Lewis is not interested in bashing Don Juan. This is not Irene's revenge. It's not suffrage. It's really art."

The art she's referring to is Moliere's "Don Juan," one of the 17th-century French playwright's rarely produced scripts, which opens the season at Center Stage Wednesday.

While serving Moliere's art, the "dames" do appear to bring a distinct perspective to the telling of the tale.

Costume designer Candice Donnelly believes women tend to see Don Juan from their own point of view -- "the way we're being cheated on, how we're being betrayed, how we're being misused. You take it as a personal offense. But in this case, for me, you see it from the angle of, 'He just doesn't get it.' "

Similarly, director Lewis says, "I think there is an understanding that we all start from. Since most of us have experienced it first-hand, we start from that."

Although the women may have had their way -- metaphorically speaking -- with Don Juan, their approach stems from Moliere, who created a character that differs in several significant respects from the stereotype.

For starters, Moliere's Don Juan is older -- near the end of his powers as well as his life. More to the point, he doesn't accomplish a single seduction in the course of the play (though ** not for lack of trying).

Initially, Lewis was even concerned that J. Kenneth Campbell, the actor playing the title role, was too "conventionally good looking."

Hearing this, Campbell -- who last appeared at Center Stage as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in Ted Tally's "Terra Nova" more than a decade ago -- says, "[Lewis] said to me, 'Marlon Brando at 350 pounds could play Don Juan because there's something magnetic about the man.' What is it Henry Kissinger's wife said, 'Power is sexy'?"

The power Moliere focuses on has less to do with seducing women than with Don Juan's "absolute indifference to societal censure," according to dramaturg Sheehy. "It's about his flouting of convention -- of marital convention, of authority, of religion."

In other words, this is a play about Don Juan, the rebel.

For set designer Kate Edmunds, this meant exploring the consequences of defying God. "Don Juan is not really punished until he defies God directly," she says. "And I find that an issue curiously sidestepped when we think of the more flashy aspects Don Juan. Sex is much more interesting to most people than religion."

That flashy archetype was created by a Spanish monk who wrote under the name of Tirso de Molina. His early 17th century play, "The Trickster of Seville and the Guest of Stone," introduced the character of Don Juan as a profligate despoiler of women. The "Guest of Stone" refers to Don Juan's chief adversary: the statue of a character called the Commander, whom Don Juan murdered. In the play, the statue comes to life, confronts Don Juan and exacts vengeance.

The Don Juan story proved immensely popular, generating versions in genres ranging from Italian commedia dell'arte to German puppet theater. The best known version is probably Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Hollywood has also been attracted to the myth, starting with a silent 1926 swashbuckler starring John Barrymore and continuing all the way through this year's "Don Juan DeMarco," starring Johnny Depp.

Moliere version

If Moliere's "Don Juan" is less well known, it's partly because his play was quickly withdrawn in his native France, primarily due to objections to its impiety. The next recorded production came two centuries later, in 1841, when the play was revived by a young French actor-director. This, in turn, led seven years later to its long-delayed debut at the Comedie-Francaise.

Moliere's Don Juan, the character at Center Stage won't resemble any of his traditional predecessors. Instead, says costume designer Donnelly, he'll look like "a cross between 'Viva Las Vegas', Mick Jagger, the '70s and the late 17th century."

That means the costumes are "interpretations of both modern clothes and period clothes. Even though the cut of them is kind of modern, they're not exactly what most people would wear," Donnelly explains. Since Don Juan is an aristocrat, his clothing -- which includes loose, open-necked shirts as well as a chartreuse brocade robe -- is "beautiful, very indulgent" and brightly colored, she says.

Campbell, the actor playing Don Juan, originally grew a beard and mustache for the role. But Donnelly concluded his mustache was too light to show up on stage, "and if he dyed it, he'd look like Robert Goulet. . . The best thing, I thought, would be if you cut his hair like a Rod Stewart bleached blond aging rock star look. It's also something women go for."

As to what Donnelly refers to as Campbell's "square-jawed, classic American handsomeness," she says, "We're actually working against that a little, using it, but making it a little more outrageous . . . He looks like the guy that would be reliable, which is good. It's against type. He's not swarthy."

Defying Conventions

The set for Center Stage's production will also defy some of the legendary Don Juan conventions. At the same time, it will attempt to visually represent Moliere's thematic concerns, such as the tearing down of traditions and institutions.

"The set is a rather ramshackle series of levels of scaffolding and enclosed within that framework are not only the statue, but traditional large symbols of Christianity," she says.

The set's most obvious departure relates to the statue. "The set is actually a response to a structural issue Moliere sets up. Part of the legend of Don Juan is that the statue moves," Edmunds says. "We thought it might be interesting to take a different approach for the statue -- the statue does not move at all, and in scale it's too large to be contained by the theater. Therefore, its implications are huge."

Though all of this makes the play sound deadly serious, it has plenty of comedy. This is due in large part to Moliere's inclusion of the comic character of Don Juan's faithful, if skeptical, servant, Sganarelle (played by Robert Dorfman). The resulting shifts from farce to metaphysics and back, Lewis explains, are among the play's chief appeals for her as a director: "I really like the difference of styles, moving back and forth -- that a play with a very serious content can encompass great and wonderful humor."

These stylistic shifts will be especially evident in the lighting. "The contrasts are really quite huge. I'm trying to make it look as ugly as I can at times -- drab, work-like," says lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. "I'm trying to make it look like hell, I guess. And then it really does contrast with really heightened farcical moments where people turn yellow and red. A lot of people would look at it and go, uh, was she on drugs, but I think it's going to work out fairly well."

What's sexy

Now that he's been dressed, lighted and directed by women, what effect does actor Campbell feel this plethora of female input has had on Don Juan?

"You have a tendency to get a better idea from a woman director of what, in fact, is sexy to a woman, whereas a male might be a little more, well, bolder," he says. "The stiller we can make this and the more underplayed we can work with this character, the better off we are."

Director Lewis adds, "There is a great deliciousness and seductiveness for a character who lives only in the present and only for what he can feel." Does this mean Center Stage's audience may actually sympathize with Don Juan? Not quite. Moliere, it seems, does not depart that far. "It's important that we respect the level of gift that [Don Juan] has," Lewis says diplomatically. "Sympathize is something else."

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