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Literary history’s most famous rakehell is among us yet again, and it’s the strangest thing: In GALA Hispanic Theatre’s staging of El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra (Don Juan of Seville), the legendary 17th-century Spanish seducer comes off looking and sounding an awful lot like an 18th-century French fop.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Choderlos de Laclos’ Vicomte de Valmont, to cite the most obvious parallel, is an impressively wicked sort, and he, like the good Don, meets a satisfyingly bad end. But the stiff, mannered fashion victim whom Harold Ruiz creates for GALA almost seems to spend more time examining his nails and fingering the lace at his wrist than considering the charms of the ladies.
Granted, the Don’s appetite for the destruction of virgins may be just another manifestation of a dissipated aristocrat’s jaded tastes, but Ruiz has taken the notion a bit far. The sweep of the cloak, the supercilious sneer, the hollow laugh all have their places in the magnetic villain’s arsenal, but don’t we, at some point, also expect our Don Juans to deploy at least a little sex appeal?
But then GALA’s production, staged fairly conservatively by company artistic director Hugo Medrano, also offers a couple of kings (Luis Wanderwinder and Luis Manrique) without much sense of authority and a famous military leader (Javier Teran) who doesn’t evidence much of an air of command, so perhaps the pale fire of its Don Juan is all of a piece. Certainly there is a surprising absence of passion in the limp verse translation GALA provides via headset for its English-speaking audiences. (Lynne Alvarez’s rendering of Tirso de Molina’s script is the same one performed in 1989 at Source Theatre, where presumably it was delivered with more conviction than GALA’s simultaneous translators bring to it here. A suggestion, if you don’t speak Spanish: Study up on the story, then bring your own headset and listen to Mozart’s version instead.)
There are, however, things to relish about El Burlador. For all his mannered posing, Ruiz—a Cuban actor making his U.S. debut with GALA—delivers Tirso’s liquid Spanish with an impressive air of confidence and what seems to an English-speaker’s ear to be a good deal of grace. Carlos Castillo, who makes his first entrance as Duke Octavio quite gratuitously shirtless, has all the energy and hunk appeal one might wish for in a Don Juan—though he’s so much fun in the four supporting roles he plays here that the trade might not be worth it. Betto Ortiz is among the more poised of the minor players, though it’s anyone’s guess why Medrano has him playing the servant Fabio as such a mincing sissy; there are low laughs enough in Manuel Cabrera-Santos’ broad performance of Cantalinon, Don Juan’s faithful dolt of a sidekick.
Leslie Yanez is poetically beautiful as Fabio’s mistress, Isabela, the first of four maidens dishonored by the Don—though of those women, only the fisherwoman, Tisbea (passionately played by the redoubtable Broselianda Hernandez), gets enough stage time to make a lasting impression on the audience.
And that tip of the balance, come to think of it, may be why Medrano’s production feels mildly unfocused. He writes, in his director’s note, that he’s interested in dispelling the romantic air that Don Juan has acquired in the centuries since Tirso created him. Medrano is seeking to apply today’s moral standards to an amoralist redeemed in his own era by his boldness and position as an aristocrat, and also to offer a look at “the feelings, interests and illusions” of his victims, who “have remained abstract martyrs in our collective cultural consciousness, almost anonymous….”
The clues to what motivates those women—what makes them answer Don Juan’s siren appeals and what makes them answerable for their decision to give in—lie, Medrano believes, in “the text and sub-text of the brief but important scenes in which they are seduced.”
Perhaps—though in Tisbea’s case, at least, the key to her character seems to lie in the great monologue she delivers even before the man who’ll be her downfall washes up on the beach at her feet: A handsome local yokel may pine for her, she says, but “I take pleasure in his pain/And glory in his torment/While all other girls die for him/In vain/And I?/Every hour I kill him with disdain/Oh this is love’s proper perspective/To love when hated/To scorn when adored,/If encouraged, to die/If censured to enjoy….Love won’t spoil my youthful years.”
Audiences—especially the Spanish-impaired sort—may have more trouble finding motivations for Isabela, Aminta, and Ana. But in Hernandez’s reading of that scene, and in the outraged power she brings to Tisbea’s lament after Don Juan has betrayed her, one provocative idea inevitably suggests itself: This is one “seduction victim” who may well have gotten what she deserved. CP