Sweet Satisfaction

'Don Juan' is as superbly and sweetly seductive as one could hope for, while 'Trying' defies easy expectations

There is a joy that comes with discovering a piece of theater so brilliant and so gratifying that you leave your seat intoxicated. That’s a rarity these days, but at the risk of flirting with hyperbole, Stephen Wadsworth’s adaptation of Molière’s Don Juan is the first truly exciting work of the new year.

Don Juan remains the infamous seducer we love to hate, casually betraying lovers and charming creditors with his razor-sharp intellect and swindling tongue. But Wadsworth turns the legend on its ear with an impish treatment of the insatiable lover and unrepentant rebel who refuses to conform to religious dogma and revered social contract in Louis XIV’s France. With a modern translation that writhes under fierce political commentary, Wadsworth has crafted a here-and-now masterpiece that ricochets inside the heart of the nation’s capital.



The Don is in: Webb, Curtis and Milligan
(Photo by Richard Termine)

If you were moved by the romance and valor of Barry Kornhauser’s sublime Cyrano at the Lansburgh two summers ago, then you may find Wadsworth’s Don Juan its cerebral equivalent. Just as Kornhauser successfully adapted a French classic and rendered it infinitely more accessible to contemporary audiences, Wadsworth reinvents Don Juan with language that resonates and a spotlight on ethics that cannot be dimmed.

Aside from its tense political leanings and push for freedom from religious conviction, this update is superbly choreographed as a comedy. Under Wadsworth’s precise direction, the evening opens with an apologetic troupe of actors securing their place as free-thinking but humble artisans cautiously preparing the king and his court for a performance of Don Juan. Each scene plays out as a spirited dance, whether it’s the float of a waltz, the heated stomp of the paso doble, or a fiery tango. And at the center of every ballet is Jeremy Webb’s cunning Don Juan, a sexy nobleman flushed with the ecstasy of life and always circling his prey with the urgency of a famished leopard.

Webb’s pitch is feverish and his timing divine as he races through his argument for hypocrisy speech in the play’s final act. There are other delicious performances, from Michael Milligan’s human study of the sheepish servant Sganarelle, to Francesca Faridany’s soft dramatics as Donna Elvira, the scorned lover who warns Don Juan to ”fear the power of a woman’s anger.”


Don Juan
To March 19
Shakespeare Theatre Company
202-547-1122
shakespearetheatre.org

Laura Heisler and Burton Curtis provide huge comic relief as a feuding peasant couple, and later Curtis turns in extraordinary character work in the tiny role of a pauper who is tempted by riches. Kevin Rupnik’s scenery evokes the imagination with colorful murals and grandiose settings, especially a center-stage gimmick to indicate the passing of time and place in the middle of a forest.

With fresh insight to a well-traveled story and a round of flawless performances, Wadsworth’s Don Juan is a truly legendary production that reaffirms the power of theater to affect change in ways both big and small.


Contrary to what you may think, Joanna McClelland Glass’s Trying isn’t a sermon on political bureaucracy or an evening of historical speculation. Forget the starchy images of Washington politicos and figures of self-important leaders. Trying is simply an intimate account of the final years in the life of Judge Francis Biddle, the late attorney general under FDR’s administration and the Truman-appointed chief U.S. judge at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. With such an extraordinary résumé and enormous personality to match, Biddle was a cantankerous curmudgeon who makes for a lively theatrical subject.


Trying
To Feb. 26
Ford’s Theatre
202-347-4833
fordstheatre.org

Glass served as secretary to Judge Biddle in 1967 and ’68, and Trying recounts the story of their meeting and evolution of their friendship. A mentor, critic, and paternal figure, Biddle was 82 years old when he died, leaving behind a legacy that Glass refused to leave off-record. And while no one expects a play about Francis Biddle to be a comedy, Gus Kaikkonen’s supremely-paced evening is a bouncy and boisterous affair.

It’s difficult to build a play around two characters, but Trying proves a fine example of how it should be done. You can’t take your eyes off of James Whitmore as Biddle. He’s craggy, surly, belligerent, and ultimately loveable as he carries the entire play on his shoulders. Karron Graves does a magnificent job as the 25-year-old Canadian who must put up with Biddle’s insistence that he is withering on his last leg. Whether she is engaging him in a tête-à-tête or quietly taking notes from dictation, Graves is always patient and respectful.

Although it is staged upon a beautifully manicured set designed by Jeff Bauer and has an air of nobility and esteem, Trying is a hugely enjoyable and entertaining evening that is as easy and as comfortable as a worn pair of slippers — perhaps because it is an engaging story that never tries too hard to impress.

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