Anarchic Spirit

Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Don Juan at McCarter Theatre looks at the iconoclastic side of Molière’s charismatic rake.

By: Matt Smith
   Don Juan has been unapologetically seducing women the world over for hundreds of years.
   The legendary lothario dates back centuries in European folklore and is a staple of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and Spain. He was the star of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and perhaps less notably, the 1995 film Don Juan DeMarco, with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp.
   Stephen Wadsworth, who is directing a production of Molière’s 1665 play, Don Juan, at McCarter Theatre in Princeton April 30 through May 19, downplays the more titillating aspects in his own new adaptation. In Mr. Wadsworth’s Don Juan, a joint venture with Seattle Repertory Theatre, the protagonist pursues his own anarchist ideals first and women second.
   "This version of the Don Juan story is much more intellectual and spiny than versions about a pleasure seeker who just has a good time with girls," he says, joking that maybe he should write a musical version called Girls, Girls, Girls.
   "This is not a play about a swashbuckling womanizer," says the director, speaking between bites of a quick lunch on the first day of Princeton rehearsals. "This is a play about a free thinker who happens to express his free thinking in a lot of different ways, and one of those is a completely free use of whatever piece of flesh is in front of him. It flies in the face of what was socially acceptable… to do it with whomever comes along and to enjoy it."
   When Don Juan premiered in France, censors immediately objected to the play’s sexual mores and indictment of religious hypocrisy, closing the production within a month. The work was even more outrageous than Molière’s Tartuffe, which had raised the ire of the religious right when presented to King Louis XIV during the previous season. Unlike Tartuffe, Don Juan wasn’t written in verse and didn’t obey the unities of time and action, preferring to bluntly address the audience.
   "’Tartuffe’ is a story with a plot," says the 49-year-old Mr. Wadsworth, whose rail-thin build, untucked dress shirt and running shoes make him look much younger. "’Don Juan’ is the day in the life of a relationship, Sganarelle and Don Juan in an open debate about certain fundamental issues of their respective world views. It explicated a lot of the troubling motifs in ‘Tartuffe’ and made them much more explicit and plainspoken. I think for people to talk about things in public discourse that were dicey was a lot more dangerous than writing a fiction about something troubling."
   Just as Don Juan pursues women of all classes, he invites dialogue with the lower classes, including his servant, Sganarelle. This was a dangerous plot point in a society clamping down on the dissemination of ideas.
   "There was a terrible fear of sharing the power of ideas with the lower class," Mr. Wadsworth says. "If everybody had ideas, it wouldn’t be long before the lower class would come to some kind of power, or realize how totally hoodwinked they were by the people who held the reins."
   Don Juan isn’t Mr. Wadsworth’s first run-in with a French playwright. Although his career began in the opera world, the Seattle resident has had great success translating and adapting the works of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux and reviving interest in the lesser-known 18th century writer. The 1992 McCarter production of Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love was his debut in non-musical theater, and he has also staged the playwright’s Changes of the Heart and The Game of Love and Chance in Princeton.
   During the 1997 McCarter production of The Game of Love and Chance, Mr. Wadsworth was approached by Princeton-based French literature scholar Joan LeJean, who proposed that he use his talents to resurrect Don Juan.
   "She said, ‘I think it’s a much maligned play,’" he says. "I don’t think it’s a play we really know, because it was so badly censored and that censored version kept being censored in a variety of very strange ways, which made the play as it came down to us really sort of a torso with no limbs.’"
   Mr. Wadsworth eventually held readings of Don Juan at Seattle Rep, but turned down Ms. LeJean at first, unhappy with the translation.
   "I finally called her up and said, ‘I don’t want to do the play,’" he says. "Then she got really worked up and said, ‘You’re blaming the problems of the play on problems of translation of the play, and that was my whole point from the beginning.’"
   Ms. LeJean sent Mr. Wadsworth a French version published in Amsterdam in 1683 and he got hooked. Although he knew some French, Mr. Wadsworth was more comfortable with Italian and German from his opera days. The bigger challenge, however, proved to be re-creating the uncensored play as Molière might have imagined it.
   "Molière said his plays weren’t for printing, they were for playing," says Mr. Wadsworth, noting that Molière was strongly influenced by the Italian Commedia troupes popular in Paris at the time, which used skeletal scripts and relied on improvisation. The Amsterdam version most likely combined the memories of actors, a stage-manager type and audience members, and lines quoted in reviews.
   As he did with the Marivaux plays, Mr. Wadsworth takes some liberties but attempts to remain faithful to its author’s intentions. The director also is working to remain equally faithful to the 17th century in the staging, using footlights, painted borders and the best approximations of period machinery, as well as maintaining the direct address with the audience.
   "I use that as sort of a standard of mandate — to make sure that if Molière walked in he would completely recognize this," Mr. Wadsworth says. "He would recognize the machinery and the way things moved, but undoubtedly he would say afterwards, ‘Well, you know, we never did that,’ or ‘I love the way you used the direct address in this way.’ Because he was such a man of the theater and was interested in the practicality of it rather than the sanctity of text, I think he would probably just be completely fascinated and ask us how we did the lighting."
   And what if Molière objected to Mr. Wadsworth’s interpretation of Don Juan? The director suggests the pair could head to the center of Princeton and he could explain himself over coffee.
   "I would have to tell him the story of what happened to the script after he died and what’s come (down) to us, and maybe, finally, have a really substantive conversation about what he actually wrote," he says. "And I could ask him if he left it somewhere so that we could find it. But I think the production would be grounds for an entirely agreeable and enjoyable discussion about the play, and not appalled stomping back to New York City."
Don Juan plays at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, April 30-May 19. Performances: Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 4, 8:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; April 30, 8 p.m.; May 19, 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $23-$43. For information, call (609) 258-2787. On the Web: