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Showing Up The Pros

March 7, 2008

This week is an unusual one for me on the play-going front. I'm seeing two student productions: ACT Master of Fine Arts' production of Sarah Ruhl's Orlando and Mark Jackson's take on the Don Juan story (as previously set down in writing by Moliere and Pushkin) at SF State University.

As a rule, I don't review student shows even if they're written and directed by brilliant people with tons of professional experience and accolades. There are two reasons for this, though I accept them kind of begrudgingly. One is that SF Weekly only has space to cover three shows per issue and there are so many productions going on outside the academic realm that my first priority invariably falls to reviewing work by "professional" theatre makers. The second reason is to do with the moral quandary of having to pass critical judgment on a show created by nascent theatre artists. The thinkinng is that if I had dreamed of becoming an actor all my childhood and was working two side-jobs to help pay for my MFA acting program, I would probably have trouble coping with some critic telling me that I couldn't act my way out of a paper bag. In other words, standard wisdom decrees that criticism in the public arena can be detrimental to student theatre makers.

Yet the distinctions between "professional", "student" and "amateur" are virtually indistinct in the theatre world at this point. So besides the fact that seasoned actors are every bit as likely to respond badly to negative criticism as student actors, the reasons for steering clear, review-wise, of student shows, are definitely up for debate. Certainly, if Jackson's bewitching take on the Don Juan legend is anything to go by, I'm going to have to start paying closer attention to what's going on on university campuses from now onwards. I think this "student" play -- which, I ought to add, I saw in preview -- is going to stay in my memory far longer than 90% of the so-called "professional" productions I've experienced in recent years.

Don Juan tells the story of the unexpected return to Madrid of the infamous titular Lothario having been previously exiled by the king for murdering a commander. During the course of Jackson's taut, 2-hour play, we watch with yo-yoing hilarity, incredulity and finally terror as Don J seduces a triptych of unsuspecting women, including, in a glance to Shakespeare's Richard III, the widow of the murdered commander right by the deceased's grave.

Set on Nina Ball's gorgeously seedy fin-de-siecle traveling circus-inspired set and against Andrea Schwartz's velvety-lurid lights, the production dances along with devilish energy. Jackson's writing blends low comedy, social commentary and sweet lyricism into a work which balances clownish theatricality with delicious metaphor regardless of whether the author is satirizing honor, waxing lyrical on the curves of a woman's body or making penis jokes.

The production features many memorable staging moments. The sex scenes are particularly imaginative. When Don Juan is deflowering a simple-minded wench by the name of Charlotte, he does it in slow motion, theatrically unzipping a hidden zipper at the front of her frilly frock and then contorting the girl as if she were a mannequin into a variety of different sexual positions. As surreal as it is, the scene is extremely visceral and disturbing. But before we can get too immersed in Charlotte's fate, Jackson tears her from us with a Brechtian flourish. The actress playing Charlotte, Elaine Gavin, suddenly transforms herself into Don Juan's regular lay, Laura. The scene quickly erupts into broad farce with a completely contrasting sex scene in which Don Juan fights a duel with an enemy while copulating with Laura. I don't think I've ever seen someone have sex and cross swords at same time on stage. The choreography is something to behold.

Much of the show's vitality also derives from the performances. Thu Tran's Don Juan is a picture book fop dressed in a custard yellow frock coat and frills -- a figure as comical as he is dangerous. As his sidekick Sganarelle, Miho Tanaka cuts a more complex figure. Seemingly critical of the Don's exploits, she goes along with him nonetheless. The Japanese actress' pronounced accent is used to clever effect in the production. The fact that it's hard for her to make herself understood when she speaks English conveys something of the difficulty of serving a master like Don Juan. Her only weapon is to bamboozle her boss (and others) by bursting into fits of scattergun Japanese. The rest of the cast brings something unusual and fascinating to each of their characters, the minor ones included. For example, Jeremy Forbing transforms the small part of Don Juan's father into something hilarious and pathetic simply by the way he walks on and off stage baring his huge walking stick. On the way on, he's in a confrontational mood, so his stick thumps slowly and pronouncedly along. On the way out, he's excited and pleased, and his frenetic fast stick action imitates this feeling.

It's possible to fault the second half of the production in a way. It feels very static and loses some of the first half's galloping rhythm due in part to Tran's ghoulish Don spending most of the act passively brooding in a chair and listening to other characters rant at him. But I wonder whether Jackson intended to slow things down in the second act to lull us into a hypnotic state before hitting us with his completely heart-stopping ending? I don't want to say how the play climaxes, but if Friedrich Nietzche and Quentin Tarantino collaborated on a stageplay together, they might have considered this the perfect way to bring down the curtain.

Ultimately, there's bitter irony in Jackson's pristine creative act. Those in charge, whether alpha males, military heroes or theatre directors kill the things they love the most. I left theatre thinking how strange it is that every act of creation is also an act of destruction.


  • You didn't mention the director character, or implied that he was Jackson himself, though he was played by a professional actor whose name escapes me. With Mark Jackson's interest in the Russians perhaps this character was his version of Meyerhold in Dr Dapertutto mode? The production sure looked like Jackson in Meyerhold mode. The set made me laugh - it seemed to be a clever mash-up of Russian design, like an old, faded Bakst set for the Ballets Russes that had been squatted by a commedia troupe with constructivist leanings (literally). At one point the director character stood on something and cast a large shadow stage left, which reminded me of the Benois illustrations for Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman" - given the Pushkin source credit for the script I'm pretty sure that was intended, though it's a pretty obscure in-joke. It was a great show regardless of the student category and I don't think student productions should be left out of the discussion anyway.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 1, 2008 at 10:34 PM  

  • absolutely, Tom. I'm ashamed that I don't get to many student productions with so much other stuff going on in the bay area. i'm a bit slow on the uptake. i've been realizing that terms like "professional", "amateur", "student", "community" etc mean hardly anything when it comes to discussions about art. interesting points you raise about jackson vis-a-vis the director character in Don Juan. i'll have to mull them over.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 2, 2008 at 8:50 AM  

  • Got a chance to ask Mark about the design for Don Juan after the Yes, Yes, to Moscow show. He said it was all the set designer's concept based on his general ideas and parameters, so he couldn't answer the question of references the designer might have been making. The lighting effect on Jake Rodriguez that reminded me of Benois' illustration for Pushkin was an accident they liked and kept. He had never seen the Bronze Horseman picture.

    By Blogger Tom, At June 3, 2008 at 11:46 PM  

  • Hi Tom
    Thanks for passing on your learnings about the Don Juan set. It just goes to show how so many of the most intriguing aspects of a theatre production come together by a combination of collaborative energy and happy accident.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At June 6, 2008 at 7:14 AM  

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