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Larry Litt



Don Juan in Hell
By George Bernard Shaw
Presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
Directed by Karen Case Cook
Through October 6, 2013
Paradise Factory Theater
64 East 4th St, New York, NY
Reviewed September 28, 2013 by Larry Litt

It's essential for anyone in the audience at Phoenix Theater Ensemble gripping production of "Don Juan in Hell" to have an open mind about the differences between Heaven and Hell. For most of us Hell is where the bad guys go to suffer for their sins, while Heaven is where generous fair-minded angels reside in peace and harmony from their good deeds. Playwright Shaw's Devil, Statue of a murdered military Commander, Don Juan and Dona Ana tell us that everything we think in reality and philosophically about residing in the afterlife is wrong. But is it really wrong or another opinionated truth about polite cultured high society?

Jason O'Connell is a self-reflective Don Juan bored with Hell, wanting desperately to go to Heaven. He is exiled in Hell because he murdered The Commander in a duel over affections he displayed for Dona Ana, The Commander's daughter. We're told The Commander resides in Heaven because he was the victim.
DON JUAN IN HELL -- Jason O'Connell as Don Juan, Elise Stone as Dona Ana, Craig Smith as Mephisto, Joseph J. Menino as The Commander. Photos by Gerry Goodstein.

Into Hell comes Dona Ana who cannot understand why she is there. What sins had she committed that would banish her to the Devil's domain? She meets Don Juan in the pit of Hell, barely recognizes him and from there we have a debate about the difference between Love and Temptation from both the male and female perspectives.

In the midst of this uncomfortably challenging reunion enters The Devil. He laughs as always at human foibles and how easily men mistake their invidious, heinous, murderous actions as noble and heroic. It's how statues of military heroes get funded and erected. Enter the statue of The Commander who reunites with his daughter in a laughably un-parental way.

The Devil's view on humanity is totally soul shattering for Don Juan. I hint at it here: Death is the highest calling because men are basically cowards who won't take on the challenge of living peaceably. Craig Smith gives The Devil sardonic life as a bon vivant, sophisticated seeker of pleasures while the world is ubiquitously at holy war, ever manufacturing better, faster killing machines thus creating new heroes and residents for ever expandning Hell.

War and heroism is a familiar pattern for The Commander played by Joseph J. Menino. Even though he died in a duel he is honored with a statue in the gardens of the local academy. Menino is sent to Heaven because he is a morally nationalistic military man whose highest calling is dying for his country. He wants to quit Heaven for Hell when he discovers there's more to the afterlife than angelic music, there's fun in the hot spot.

Elise Stone gives charmingly voluptuous life to the 77-year-old Dona Ana. In the first scene, Don Juan explains to Dona Ana that she can appear to the other people in Hell as any age she wants, so she chooses 27. This makes her too young and beautiful for us to imagine well that she's had 12 children with many suitors throughout her long life. But more to the point: her tale of lifelong romances is an anachronism considering today's puritanical feminism. We want her to be more than a mother and object of desire. But alas she is stuck in time, in Hell.

Director Karen Case Cook emphasizes and succeeds at difficult Shavian wit garnering well earned many laughs. Because we still live in the play's death culture there's much to talk about after the show is over. This is intelligent English theater. It's what a play for adults should be.


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