Don Juan in Hell

Let us take George Bernard Shaw, the supreme master of the "theatre of ideas" genre, at his word(s). Germinal Stage's artistic director, Ed Baierlein, does. In his second run at the famous third act, Don Juan in Hell, of GBS's Man and Superman, Baierlein further tweeks his excellent 1997 production, which he directed (and in which he played Don Juan; Terry Burnsed does the honors this time) on these very same boards.

It must be understood, as Baierlein clearly shows us at the conclusion, that Shaw is speaking in both the past and future tenses: Past—of the pitfalls into which humankind has fallen; and Future—how humankind could evolve and reach its true potential (what Solomon's Proof calls "light conscious of itself"), if it so chooses.

It's plain to see that the human race is at its crossroads: the oblivion of slavery to the financiers is the choice being forced from atop the pyramid; while freedom and spiritual evolution is the conscious choice that the science of light (physics and metaphysics) demands as natural progression (again, see Solomon's Proof)

As the ultimate Platonic form of the "theatre of ideas," Don Juan in Hell has very little action—it's often done as a staged reading—but it's much more meaningful and fun as a play, because of the visceral nature of the relationships, however intellectual they may seem. Anyone who subscribes, at least in part, to Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," will understand the importance placed on the questions discussed, because the upshot is, as Buddha put it, "right action"; for anyone who finds intellectual discourse tedious, there are a number of entertaining musicals now receiving excellent local productions.

(Left to right) Michael Shalhoub as The Devil and Terry Burnsed as Don Juan
(L to R) Michael Shalhoub as The Devil
and Terry Burnsed as Don Juan
Shaw, forever the iconoclast, questions a number of societal norms, including marriage, on the one hand, and the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, on the other; in essence, presenting his notion of Nietzsche's Übermensch, in the form of Don Juan, as freed from the restraints of animal instincts and the bourgeois super-ego.

Burnsed passionately argues Don Juan's case, casting an entirely different light on the legends of the fictional libertine and seducer, most famously captured in Mozart's oft-misunderstood opera (libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte), which the maestro considered a comedy. Forget the common aspersions directed at Nietzsche's concept, particularly as a result of the inglorious distortions of the Nazis, who were incapable of understanding the spiritual strength involved in such an evolutionary aspiration, instead basing their notion of the Übermensch on fear.

In this case, the Devil's advocate is Lucifer himself (Michael Shalhoub reprising his 1997 role), decked out in a Hawaiian shirt, a surfeit of bling, and stylish sunglasses. Shaloub has a field day as the bon vivant, silver-tongued angel of disrepute.

Julie Michalak as Dona Ana and Paul A. Caouette as Commander
Julie Michalak as Dona Ana
and Paul A. Caouette as Commander
But the true test for Don Juan is Donna Anna (Julie Michalak), the woman whose virtue he famously robbed and then, when challenged by her father, the Commander (Paul A. Caouette), slew him. Despite having chosen 27 years as her age in eternal land of death, Michalak's perky Anna channels the airs of a Spanish grande dame, underscoring Shaw's point regarding the irrelevance of physical age to character.

Caouette, plated from head to toe—skin, hair, and armor—in gray tones, befitting his status as a marble statue, delivers his analysis of heaven and hell with such dispassionate erudition ("I can't complain. I was a hypocrite; and it served me right to be sent to heaven."), that he and the Devil make fast friends. This, on the heels of Don Juan and the Devil's conversation, forces us to reconsider that the heavenly and hellish states we were programmed to associate with eternal bliss and/or damnation, instilled in us by Judeo-Christian theurgists.

ANA. Are you–

THE DEVIL. [bowing] Lucifer, at your service.

ANA. I shall go mad.

THE DEVIL. [gallantly] Ah, Senora, do not be anxious. You come to us from earth, full of the prejudices and terrors of that priest-ridden place. You have heard me ill spoken of; and yet, believe me, I have hosts of friends there.

ANA. Yes: you reign in their hearts.

THE DEVIL. [shaking his head] You flatter me, Senora; but you are mistaken. It is true that the world cannot get on without me; but it never gives me credit for that: in its heart it mistrusts and hates me. Its sympathies are all with misery, with poverty, with starvation of the body and of the heart. I call on it to sympathize with joy, with love, with happiness, with beauty.

Heaven and hell are not what we expect them to be, eternal fortresses of good and evil, but simply states of mind. Even the Church finally got around to agreeing with Shaw:

Rocky Mountain News, "Spotlight Magazine," 7/31/1999, in a Scripps Howard News Service reprint of an article by James Meek of The Guardian entitled "Pope defines hell more as a separation from God," Pope John Paul II, in the course of one week, described both heaven and hell not as physical places but as descriptions of one's relationship, or lack thereof, with G-d.

Germinal Stage Denver's 17th production of Shaw's work, its revival of Don Juan in Hell, runs through December 16th. 303-455-7108.

Bob Bows


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