Legendary skirt-chaser Don Juan gets his in the end--at least in most of the versions of the famous story. And after seducing all those women, he would seem to deserve to burn in hell. But what if hell is a very pleasant sort of place--a kind of continuing cocktail party for the everlastingly superficial, where the wine is good, the women are beautiful and the conversation sparkling?
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw thought a lot about hell and came to the conclusion that even the world's most infamous womanizer would get bored in such an illusory environment. His Don Juan in Hell is a caustic attack on all sorts of middlebrow values and pretensions--the sort of shallow societal pleasantries he envisioned as commonplace in the abyss. Nobody in this city has the resources to do justice to Shaw's masterful arguments but Germinal Stage Denver. And its third production of the play (the first was in 1977, the second in 1982) positively glitters with intellectual panache.
Don Juan in Hell, really the third act of Shaw's Man and Superman, is most often staged by itself--in part because it's an hour and 45 minutes long. And this cerebral comedy of hell warmed over has had a lasting and profound influence since Shaw wrote it in 1903. His ruminations about the hereafter apparently caught the eye of that most popular of Christian apologists, C.S. Lewis, whose The Great Divorce likewise pictured hell as a series of illusions. Shaw, a Darwinist, described Man and Superman as a new "Book of Genesis for the Bible of the Evolutionists." And Don Juan's conversation with the Devil gives the play a religious dimension reminiscent of Dante and Milton (both of whom Don Juan scorns in the play).
The show opens with a bored Don Juan languidly trying to catch a small wooden ball with a cup. An elderly lady appears shrouded in a black cloak. Don Juan tells her she has arrived in hell, and Dona Ana responds with more indignation than fear. But Juan soon puts her mind at ease and tells her that down here, she can be any age she wants to be--after all, she no longer has a body. So she chooses to be 47, pulls off her cloak and meets that handsome devil, Satan, who appears in tails and a red-velvet vest.
Eventually, Dona Ana's father arrives fresh from heaven looking a lot like the ghost of Hamlet's father, in gray-face and disintegrating armor. He once was proud to have been one of the "elect" allowed through the pearly gates--a man whose daughter raised a statue to his memory. But having decided that the boring mental life in heaven is too high a price to pay for posthumous social status, the Commander has deserted to the Devil.
The whole play is really an argument between Satan's runaway hedonism and Don Juan's growing appreciation for the life of the mind. When the Devil gives a long speech on his own views concerning beauty and pleasure, Don Juan's response is a deliberate "p-shaw"--an expression that at once blows a raspberry at Satan's pretensions and embraces Shaw himself as a mighty iconoclast.
Ed Baierlein designed, directed and stars as Don Juan, but he could have played the Devil just as brilliantly. And Michael Shalhoub, who makes an extravagantly elegant Satan, could just as well have played Don Juan. Each actor has qualities suited to both roles--a delicious thought to ponder during the performance, because they complement each other so well. Shalhoub is suave, sexy and a little mysterious, while Baierlein is out there--expressive, edgy and cool.
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Sallie Diamond makes earth mother Dona Ana convincingly intuitive and appealing, while James Mills brings a nice goofiness to the befuddled Commander. Like the other cast members, they inhabit these roles with terrific authority--and authority is required to carry off so intellectual an exercise.
Shaw's turn-of-the-century thinking shows its age in places; the playwright, for instance, takes for granted that evolution is working toward a "superman" who will somehow be a better product than the one who now roams the planet. He apparently bought into the German philosopher Nietzsche, whose ideas about the superman were appropriated by the Nazis to justify their own Aryan idealism. Still, Shaw was no fool, and the drubbing he gives all sorts of institutions and presumptions is as inspired--and relevant--as ever.
Don Juan in Hell, through March 9 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 455-7108.