In seeing Center Stage's production of Moliere's "Don Juan," it helps to know that the role the playwright wrote for himself wasn't the title character, but his servant, Sganarelle. This loyal but skeptical sidethe amoral, sacrilegious, hedonistic Don Juan.
Therefore, though J. Kenneth Campbell's portrayal of Don Juan isn't always compelling, the production is largely redeemed by Robert Dorfman's expressive Sganarelle.
Dorfman is a trained clown, and, in the role of this increasingly frustrated character, director Irene Lewis has given him an excellent opportunity to display his comedic talents. Dorfman's reactions not only provide much of the humor in this 17th-century black comedy, but also secure Sganarelle's place as the troubled, reluctant conscience of Don Juan -- a man apparently born with conscience-deficit disorder.
Greatly missed in the rare moments he's off stage, Dorfman is masterful as cowardly, vexed Sganarelle, whether trailing behind the don like a whipped dog, or lending X-rated suggestiveness to the simple phrase, "so lifelike," as he stares up between the legs of the two-stories-high memorial statue of the Commander -- a man Don Juan murdered, who seeks revenge from beyond the grave. (Dorfman even gets away with an in-character subscription pitch after intermission.)
Sganarelle constantly reminds Don Juan of the consequences of flouting morality and faith. His reminders serve as signals that Moliere's play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is about more than the escapades of a lothario. Since Campbell's Don Juan is almost all surface, his best scenes are the ones that emphasize style, instead of substance.
Center Stage's production is set in an unspecified time with both modern and period touches, and in this context, Don Juan comes across as the archetypal lounge lizard. With hair bleached blond, clad in a black brocade suit, Campbell woos the audience in his opening scene, using a hand-held microphone to broadcast his pleasure-driven philosophy.
Later, when he defends his new stance as a devout hypocrite, he's as smooth as a politician or an evangelist, or both. But Campbell lacks the dark undercurrent suggested by the rest of the production -- particularly the angst-ridden Expressionistic red and black set, with its tiers of scaffolding (designed by Kate Edmunds), and the high-contrast lighting (by Mimi Jordan Sherin).
To a large extent, Moliere's "Don Juan" is a two-person show. Still, several other performances stand out. With hair a la "Seinfeld's" Kramer, Douglas Weston is charmingly silly as the -- bumpkin fiance of a country maid who catches the don's eye. And, Laurence O'Dwyer is notable as three men who want something from Don Juan -- a squire, a beggar and a creditor. As Donna Elvira, the don's latest outraged bride, Anne Torsiglieri is initially too shrill, but she's a striking presence when she returns at the end, calm and restored to her religious vocation.
Director Lewis has made a number of thought-provoking choices. Most noticeably, when the Commander's statue comes life, Lewis defies convention by not having it move -- reinforcing the moral rigidity it stands for. And, the ghost who visits Don Juan in the next-to-last scene is also inanimate -- represented by an elaborately dressed doll of a skeleton. This doll is held by a little girl (alternately played by Maren E. Rosenberg and Kathleen McMullen) whose silent presence haunts much of the play.
This girl is one of Lewis' most intriguing interpolations. Though Don Juan goes to his fate unrepentant and having learned nothing (heck, he's joyous), this young witness has learned a lot. Sganarelle may be at a loss after Don Juan's gone, but the little girl brings hope that future generations of women may be less easily duped.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Nov. 5
Tickets: $10 - $37
Call: (410) 332-0033