Don John, here in its North American premiere, flickers between these two states — the writhing energy of its star predator (Gisli Orn Gardarsson) and the torpid, boxed-in stasis of his prey — like an uncertain light intermittently shorting out, plunging everything into darkness. And darkness is principally what’s under consideration here, both as a blissful release and determined denial.
Director and adaptor Emma Rice has narrowly achieved her stated aim “to reclaim the story for the female characters”. Rice’s Don John is a woman’s story.
Gardarsson’s pitch-perfect Don John may be the spark for these women who elect to become his tinder, yet as a result the female leads burn brightly, making the one-dimensional men around them seem like mere silhouettes capable only of casting shadows.
“When there’s a mess,” we’re told early on, “somebody must come along and clear it up.” In Don John, cleaning up the mess is largely a woman’s task. And there’s plenty of refuse to go around.
Vicki Mortimer’s meticulous Don John set is a dystopian hallucination: a tumbledown seaside carnival, a vacant church, and a railway container graveyard.
Those boxy cargo containers take center stage as their sides open and shut on the seedy lives playing out on sets enclosed within them. It makes for an ingenious spectacle, eye-candy that itself becomes a vestigial character in the play: the boxes these women find themselves struggling to escape.
And they are glorious in their tragedies.
Patrycja Kujawska’s Zerlina, the Polish housemaid engaged to a well-meaning putz, matches Don John’s acrobatic geometries of sexual abandon move for move. But where Don John is little more than a copulating android, a mass of ready impulses, Kujawska’s Zerlina grows deeper and more grounded as the play progresses.
Less happily, Amy Marston’s Elvira is doomed to wear her denial and despair like a mink stole. She shines in her fruitless goal to remake Don John. Nina Dogg Filippusdottir’s Anna is her antithesis — a deluded, but unwilling, victim who is all too keenly aware of her humiliation. Each of these three performances engage the audience beyond the level of theatrical craft. We are compelled to breathe, wince and sigh along with them.
While Don John gives them short shrift —the male characters here are hopelessly redundant — there are uniformly captivating performances among the men as well.
Carl Grose’s delightful Alan, is a devoted, lovable putz whose unbounded love for Zerlina transforms him into the unlikely male hero of the drama. Nobby (Mike Shepherd) is the ultimate all-in sidekick, scrupulously documenting with his Polaroid camera each of Don John’s conquests. And Anna’s hapless, untidy husband, the vicar Derek (Craig Johnson), passion-challenged and blinkered in his devotion to divine solutions for his own messes, makes cringing at his character a pleasure.
Don John erupts on stage and sometimes feels like one of those intentionally elliptical HBO series with a dash of Trainspotting thrown in at the end.
There is a clunky wrap up, but Don John is flexible enough, remarkable enough to survive the mawkish undertow with most of its libertine charms intact.