By Joseph Hurley
DON JUAN IN HELL, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Arnold Bratov. Starring Barbara Vann, Mark J. Dempsey, Ann Fleuchaus and James Barbosa. Produced by Medicine Show, 549 West 52nd St., NYC. Through Feb. 13.
"The Devil is a Woman" is the title of a classic 1933 movie starring Marlene Dietrich. It’s also the central idea behind the current Medicine Show production of George Bernard Shaw’s "Don Juan in Hell."
"Don Juan in Hell," in itself a full-length, four-character play, is, in fact, the third of four acts of Shaw’s brilliant 1905 comedy, "Man and Superman," representing what critic John Mason Brown called a "detachable dream sequence." It takes place when the principal characters of the enveloping play have fallen asleep around a Gypsy campfire in Spain.
Because of its length, as well as its tonal difference from the rest of "Man and Superman," "Don Juan in Hell" is very seldom performed. In the early 1950s, it had something of a vogue because of a touring concert version of the text, with four stars calling themselves the First Drama Quartet.
In the extremely popular production, with Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Agnes Moorehead as Dona Ana, Cedric Hardwicke as the Statue, and Charles Laughton as the Devil and doubling as the event’s director, the performers wore evening clothes and stood or sat at lecterns with open scripts before them, although they had, of course, learned their roles before they faced their first audience.
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The current Medicine Show production is as far from the warm formality of the First Drama Quartet as would seem possible, and not merely because the director, Arnold Bratov, elected to cast Barbara Vann, one of Medicine Show’s founders, as the Devil, along with the more traditionally deployed Mark J. Dempsey as Don Juan, Ann Fleuchaus as Dona Ana, and James Barbosa as the Statue, here called the Commander.
Medicine Show has envisioned the world of "Don Juan in Hell" as a kind of children’s playroom, its walls and furnishings washed in rich pinks and light, gleaming blues, endlessly suggestive of colors traditionally associated with childhood and childish pleasures.
Director Bratov has an extensive background in the circus world, including appearances with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey, and this background is clearly evident throughout "Don Juan in Hell," sometimes to positive effect, but, alas, all too often with results that are haphazard or vulgar or both, as in the moment when actress Vann uses a rolled condom first as a monocle and then inflates it as a balloon for no discernible reason other than to provide an extremely busy performer with something to do while her colleagues are occupied with Shaw’s delicious text.