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Juan for the Road

To hell with George Bernard Shaw.

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As Jean-Paul Sartre declared, "Hell is other people." Sartre may have cribbed this idea from George Bernard Shaw, whose Don Juan in Hell depicts the underworld as a tediously social realm where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself. The shallow denizens of hell don't suffer, because they're so well suited to the place. If it's a contemplative death you want, though, hell is, well, hell.

If it's a play full of action and rapid-fire exchanges between zany characters that you want, hell is four people sitting on stools reading Shaw from the music stands in front of them. If, on the other hand, you're willing to sit down, shut up and listen to Shaw's witty, epigrammatic philosophizing for an hour and a half, Don Juan in Hell can be a little piece of heaven.

In 1903, Shaw gave his latest play the Nietzschean title Man and Superman, subtitling it A Comedy and a Philosophy. Almost immediately, producers tried to save the more commercially palatable comedy part--the story of a hapless man named John pursued by a charming, hypocritical (and therefore, by Shaw's standards, typical) woman named Ann--by ripping out the philosophy part. That would be the Act 3 dream sequence in which John imagines himself to be Don Juan languishing in hell, lecturing everyone within earshot--Doña Ana, one of his conquests; her avenging father, killed by Don Juan in a duel only to return as a statue to drag the libertine to hell; and the devil himself.

The third act, though, has taken on a life of its own. It's usually staged by itself as a simple reading, conducted by four players and retitled Don Juan in Hell. This is the course Live Theatre Workshop follows with its current offering, adding to this fragment of the original play no more than a few subtle lighting cues, a very little offstage Mozart, and several easy-to-miss projections of art by Michelangelo, Bruegel and Reubens. (The company will produce Shaw's Arms and the Man in September; too bad it won't be the rest of Man and Superman instead.)

Shaw draws his characters and also his structure largely from Mozart's Don Juan opera, Don Giovanni, with a sequence of conversations mirroring the duets and trios in the opera's first act. But Shaw also owes something to Lord Byron's satirical Don Juan poem, particularly in the long, discursive monologues on the big issues of life and society. He seems also to have picked up a few pointers from Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau's idealistic Don Juan, who ends up bored with the emptiness of his life.

Yet it's Friedrich Nietzsche with whom Shaw's Don Juan seems to thrust and parry in a good-natured duel of ideas. As outlined in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche's übermensch, or superman, preaches faithfulness to the body and the material world rather than the hereafter. Shaw's would-be superman, Don Juan, insists on following the "life force," the will of the universe, while suppressing his own will. Don Juan, bored by hell's frivolous society, longs for the blatantly tedious heaven, where he can lead a more contemplative death. However different their emphases, though, both Shaw's superman and Nietzsche's are dedicated to overcoming the self and rising above the masses.

Oh, it does sound hopelessly untheatrical, doesn't it? Yet it can be an engaging evening if you have the patience to follow Don Juan/Shaw's argument, expounded at great length. (Just as every opera by Shaw's contemporary Richard Strauss ends with 20 minutes of uninterrupted soprano hooting, you do wonder if Juan will ever let anyone else get a word in edgewise).

Shaw's wit--in both senses of intelligence and funniness--never fails him, and LTW's James Mitchell Gooden invests Juan with all the considerable exasperation and cynical quasi-optimism he can muster. That doesn't mean that Shaw's philosophizing is always easy to follow; Shaw never quite connects all the dots, say, when he has Juan argue that cowardice drives humanity, but also drives humanity to fight for ideas. Thanks to Shaw's brilliant play of words, you accept these concepts more intuitively than intellectually.

Shaw's great misstep is in giving the devil so little to do. He has one good speech early on, but then is limited, like the two remaining characters, to a few interjections that serve as transitions between Don Juan's points. (Steve Allen handled this sort of thing much better 20 years ago in his dead-intellectual talk show Meeting of Minds.) Cliff Madison's devil begins as a nice combination of lounge lizard and Oxbridge charmer, but the characterization fades over time because Shaw gives him so little to work with. Perhaps Madison should sneer more than he smirks, but director Jeremy Thompson does present this quartet as highly civilized upper-class friends, three of them spellbound by one they can't help liking despite vehemently disagreeing with him.

Similarly, Bruce Bieszki as the military commander turned statue who is now great pals with his murderer, the man he brought down to hell, is a befuddled buffoon stripped of all menace, and Elizabeth Seddon Gooden, once she has finely transformed Ana from age 77 to age 27 (actually it seems more like 17), merely maintains an air of petulant piety. It's too bad Shaw doesn't allow her a more credible defense from his/Juan's odd form of misogynistic feminism; Seddon Gooden, and Madison's devil, could easily hold their own against Gooden's delightfully didactic Don Juan. But with Shaw controlling the argument, there's no chance in hell.

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