Don Juan

Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham, through June 8, 379-4027.

You know the minute it begins that director Ken Marini's production of Moilre's 1665 play, Don Juan, is going to be High Concept.

Standing in the middle of the black-and-white marble floor is a bathtub with gilded claw-feet. Flanking the stage, standing beside the cream-and-gilt neo-classical pillars of the set (conceived by Marini and executed by Jim Pyne and Roseanne Haines), are two young women (labeled "Proscenium Servants" in the program), dressed only in black brassieres, white lace petticoats and black velvet chokers, glaring at the audience. A curtain at the rear of the stage parts, revealing a singer (Linda Pierson) in 17th-century costume, singing an aria from Mozart's 18th-century Don Juan opera, Don Giovanni.

As the production starts to tell Molire's version of the classic story of Don Juan (the aristocrat who seduces one woman after another until he is dragged down to hell by the statue of a commander he has slain), the concepts pile on. Each of the five acts jumps forward a few centuries or a few decades in time (introduced by the singer with a new costume and appropriate music), and jumps around various places in America. Elvire, the nun whom Don Juan has seduced before the play begins, is a Puritan from Massachusetts; the peasant girls he charms in the next act are antebellum Southerners; the aristocratic enemies he rescues from bandits are Hispanic hidalgos with jangling spurs, straight from their hacienda in the Old West; Don Juan's dinner, to which he has invited the statue, is a 1930s soiree.

Don Juan (Tom Teti) changes costumes (all designed by M. Michael Montgomery) for each of these encounters, from waistcoat and wig, to a dove-gray frock coat and top hat, to a Western rancher's duds, to a spiffy double-breasted tux with a red bow tie. These changes of costume, along with appropriate changes of accent, represent a series of roles he plays and disguises he assumes. Similarly, his moralizing put-upon servant Sganarelle, played by Robert Christophe, drops his West Indian accent to playact various embodiments of grudging subservience: a shuffling harmonica-playing field hand, a Native American medicine man in a buffalo-skin headdress, and a 1930s waiter.

Teti's Don Juan is a coldblooded atheist, governed not so much by his carnal desires as by his rationalism (when Sganarelle asks him what he believes, he responds, in Christopher Hampton's translation, "I believe that two and two are four and that four and four are eight"). "Don Juan," Marini writes in a program note, "is a man who is disconnected from his bliss." Teti's characterization of the role is, therefore, defined by negation, by an absence of any real passion. When he isn't treating Sganarelle with condescension, contempt or violence, he is often simply staring into space, disconnected from the people speaking to him or from any real desires of his own. His flirtation with the peasant girls (in accents out of Gone With the Wind) and his manipulation of a creditor at his dinner party (while wagging his cigar and wiggling his eyebrows as though he were Groucho Marx) are merely diversions along the way to nothing in particular.

Only in the final act, when Don Juan pretends to have experienced a religious conversion (the most terrifying section of the play) do Teti and his character begin to enjoy themselves. But by then, as the scene shifts to the 1960s, with Don Juan now in a Nehru jacket and Sganarelle dressed as Black Panther, it has become completely unclear where Teti's performance and all this high-concept directorial gimmickry are going.

Then we find out. Don Juan is dragged to hell not by the statue but a retinue of avenging '60s feminists who burn him on a funeral pyre of flaming bras (I kid you not). And Sganarelle, after lighting his cigarette on his master's ashes, speaks his famous final lines (complaining about his lost wages) while raising a black power fist, glaring, as the women do, at the audience accusingly, as though all along we had been Don Juan's silent accomplices.

By the end of the evening, several actors who have been impressive in other productions (Susan Wilder, Tim Moyer, Paul L. Nolan, Michael Toner, Heather Donahue and Philip Lynch, along with Michele Guidry and Anthony Giampetro) make little or no impression in their roles; Tom Teti has somnambulated through an energetic and charismatic role he has more than enough energy and charisma to play. And all this for a concept that's just too silly for words.

-- Cary M. Mazer