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Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq — Wilma Theater

Don_Juan-311-by_iziliaevIn a folk song from the 1960s, Buffy Sainte Marie writes about “The Universal Soldier,” a man who transcends time, religion, nationality, ideology, and physical features to represent willing warriors of all ages from all ages. (He’s 5-foot-2  and he’s 6-foot-4. He fights with missiles and with spears….”)

Paula Vogel, while drawing on a variety of sources, depicts Juan, the lead character in her world premiere play, “Don Juan Comes Back From Iraq” as a universal soldier of sorts. Although he is an American Marine who returns stateside after duty as a squadron commander in Iraq, Juan travels from real scenes set in 2000 and 2004 to imaginative sojourns to Philadelphia landmarks of bygone eras, waging in both actual and fanciful time a never-ending battle against his own humanity. The only warm, sincere, or sentimental feeling he can muster is towards as woman named Cressida, a fellow combatant, who he met in Philadelphia before either was deployed to Iraq and who he comes to Philadelphia to find once his overseas military tour is ended. And even his regard for Cressida is tinged with roughness and carnal desire as much as love.

Vogel, who worked in close collaboration with director Blanka Zizka and “Don Juan’s” inaugural cast at the Wilma Theater, touches on many subjects and comments broadly and interestingly on war, its memorabilia, its brutality, and its effect on  those who live through it, soldier and civilian. She has assigned her characters some bold statements that ring chillingly true while Zizka is unstintingly graphic in passages that depict injury and carnage to both body and psyche.  Images are intense, and Vogel adds gender skirmishes to her arsenal  as she introduces men and women  serving together as comrades in arms. “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” has the ingredients of raw, visceral theater, but in spite of sporadic poignant speeches and scenes and Zizka’s remarkable staging on a platform that slides, slants, lowers, and raises into strong configurations, Vogel’s work is too heavy-handed, too self-conscious, and, at times, too naïve to have more than momentary impact.

“Don Juan” makes its thematic points so early and so often, it becomes tedious  rather than engrossing or affecting. By trying so hard to make a staunch stand against war and the toll it takes on the human spirit, Vogel overloads and overdoes her play. It loses steam instead of gaining it and often smacks of shock for shock’s sake or, worse, propaganda that has angry language but no drama to back it. Like Sainte Marie’s song, it seems rooted in ’60s sensibility. Unlike “The Universal Soldier,” it leaves no room for perspective, possibly because of 21st century political correctness. For all of Vogel’s attempt at epic sweep, “Don Juan” is a series of too similar variations that emphasize the rot military life has made of Juan’s soul. The problem is the corrosion is so deep, so pronounced, and so repeatedly obvious, it takes away any pity we may extend to Juan for losing his humanity and our continued interest in seeing how he lost it. Whatever torture Juan feels, it is equal to the torment he inflicts. That neutralizes our sympathy and turns “Don Juan” monotonous and inconsequential.

From Tirso de Molina and Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte to Moliere, Byron, and Vogel’s model, Ödon von Horvarth, all writers (well, not Shaw) depict Don Juan as a voracious scoundrel whose story ends with retribution rather than redemption. Vogel, though, gives no wit or sense of pleasure in the hunt to her character. He is not a figure of casual romance or sardonic seduction whose disregard for women goes too far as to offend or unnerve. He is a truculent, sadistic brute whose obsession with Cressida is as much a campaign to own her as to find salvation from her.  Even the sincere and muscular performance of Keith J. Conallen as Juan and Zizka’s inventive use of Matt Saunders’s versatile stage and Thom Weaver’s evocative lighting cannot restore vigor or vitality to this play that shows its hand plainly within 10 minutes of its running time and covers the same ground over and over from there. Taken as a whole,  “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” becomes an interesting failure that trades sequences of definite, at times stunning, poignance and power for patterned passages that keep Vogel’s play static. Self-consciousness, improvisation, and a sense of unwarranted smugness cloud the scenes in which Zizka and Conallen, more than Vogel, express the horror of war and unhealable wounds and scars with which it brands the universal soldier. Or Marine.

“Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” begins with conflict and pyrotechnics. You are brought immediately to  a battlefield where the fighting is intense and the pragmatism of war vs. the humanity of the people waging it becomes a palpable issue. Juan, in command, orders his troops to evacuate without question or delay. A medic who turns out to be Cressida, Juan’s object of affection, argues she cannot leave until she can treat a civilian woman who is bleeding and will surely die if left untended or left behind. She disobeys Juan’s order, and her insubordination has consequences.

This first scene shows promise. Already the audience is ambivalent. Does one act in accord with a commander and for the general welfare of the soldiers under siege, or does one risk one’s own annihilation to minister to a living being who will certainly die if deserted by the troops that contributed to her critical state?

The conundrum looks as if it will be basis of “Don Juan,” a series of moral dilemmas that illustrate the reality of war and the kinds of decisions that must be made within split seconds. The streets of Iraq, and the people populating them, are not settings and figures in a video game. They are real combat zones with flesh-and-blood denizens, and the situation in one of actual life and death.

The clarity of the alternatives is exciting, especially because you know, on some level, both Juan and Cressida are opting to do the right thing. Juan has a squadron of men and women to consider. Cressida has individualized the situation and is thinking of one woman whose imminent death she is unwilling to chalk up to collateral damage.

Tension is rife. Keith Conallen is already displaying the forcefulness he will bring to his role. The outcome of the scene is as dramatic and unsettling as its set-up, the confrontation about whether to abandon a wounded party when the commander says “Retreat.”

What happens next is equally gripping. Juan is seen looking a bit infirm and shell-shocked as he wanders the streets of Philadelphia looking for Cressida and tracking down the address where she once lived.

Until Juan arrives at the home of Cressida’s friend, Sheila, whose household includes a teenage daughter, Aggie, speech has been limited to the necessary, the barking of orders, the challenge and disobeying of those orders, and Juan’s inquiry about whether he is at the right house when he arrives at Sheila’s. Zizka’s staging and Conallen’s expression and deportment have told the basic story so far.

Then comes more deliberate dialogue and a scramble to meld pieces to cobble a play, and “Don Juan” becomes a hodgepodge struggling to find a core instead of the taut, cohesive work its first 10 minutes predict. Portent gives way to portentousness and slips further in to the ponderous and even into twaddle. The inspiration that informed the first sequences will return sporadically, and there will be a half dozen scenes that engross with the intensity of the opening passages, but it general, “Don Juan” will disappoint and wear out its welcome.

The overdoing starts with a portrait of Aggie, a smart-mouthed teen who appreciates little and regards all life as one big video. At first, you might of Aggie as a contrast to Juan, a spoiled girl who leads a licensed existence in her dreadful urban clothes while he is off in foreign lands fighting to preserve her freedom. Aggie is dressed weirdly and has a strange  haircut. She is tied to her video games and other paraphernalia on her cell phone. She is accustomed to speaking sarcastically and disrespectfully to her mother and anyone else who has been inured to accepting sass from the young. Sarah Gliko, who excels in other scenes, adds a strong Philadelphia accent to Aggie’s repugnant repertoire.

I go on about Aggie, not so much because the character is important, but to show where and how goes awry. I get the impression Aggie was an idea, an improvisation by Gliko that Vogel and Zizka incorporated into the script. If she does exist to give Juan an inkling of whom he’s risking his life to protect, that purpose fades in a character that is overdone.

Scenes in Sheila’s house establish Juan’s quest to find Cressida, show his penchant for falling into bed with any woman who invites him, or at least any woman whose disdain he has to conquer to get the invitation, and how ill Juan is physically and mentally. The scenes move Vogel’s play forward, but they take away the edge, the focus the earlier scenes evoked. “Don Juan” begins to become a bit mundane and preachy. Even Sheila’s softening towards the man she first brands the devil incarnate becomes a minor point instead of the pattern we expect it to be.

Addled from his many experiences in war and in pursuit of Cressida, a pursuit Juan must know is futile, Juan wanders through Philadelphia to find respite and refuge.

Here one of the many scenes that play liberally with time kicks in. Juan roost in the Divine Lorraine Hotel, set up by Father Divine as a haven for travelers but shuttered like its catty-corner companion, the Met, on North Broad Street for more than 40 years.

The ghostly scene of a Philadelphia long past underscores my impression of Juan as the universal soldier. Time doesn’t matter or impinge much on Juan’s being. He is hardened and battle-ready at all instances. In place of emotions, he has reflexes, quick reflexes that will protect him but could be harmful to another who surprises Juan or places him in a tight or unexpected circumstance. Juan is battle-weary  and in dire need of sleep and healing, but he agilely and powerfully responds when challenged. Or when he thinks he is challenged.

Beyond showing that “Don Juan” will travel from the late 18th century to 2004 to make some points, or to provide some gratuitous novelty some may regard as interesting, the sequence at the Divine Lorraine informs us that Juan’s appetite for women is triggered only when there is resistance or conflict. When an acolyte of Father Divine offers to break strict rules and act as a sister of mercy who will relieve Juan from a lonely, timorous night, Juan rejects her, and with the same cruelty with which he treats women who have succumbed to his overtures or commands.

The relationship between men and women is strong in Vogel’s play. It serves as a companion theme to “Don Juan’s” commentary or war and its effects.

Unlike other plays that feature Don Juan, even von Horvath’s, Vogel’s Juan has to contend with women who are equal or superior to him. His conquests are not made as a noble leavening the days of sequestered donãs or grateful peasant girls. He has to deal with soldiers, others whose lives are on the line and are as affected by war and military life as he is. The current issue about officers taking advantage of rank to “seduce” enlisted women comes to light in Vogel’s play. The scene in which Juan’s disregard of women, or even his squadron buddies, is depicted with the most impact is visceral and designed to be as repugnant as it is, but it seems to fulfill an agenda Vogel has for “Don Juan” as well as making a point about Juan’s lust and loyalty.

The shame in “Don Juan’s” strengths and qualities are overshadowed by its deficiencies.

The effect a military life that, going back to the universal soldier, spans centuries, has on one’s soul comes across clearly in Juan’s unemotional, tactical view of everything. The world holds no joy for him. It is a place to scrounge and survive, to go on the defense, and to take what you want as a spoil of combat, even if what you want is a woman with her own volition and right to refuse.

War scenes graphically and dramatically show combat’s destructiveness. We don’t get to know every soldier we see in a way that makes us care about him or her individually, but we see the violence of their demise and have enough acquaintance to realize they are fellow humans caught in a troubled situation and mourn their loss. Zizka is particularly adroit at using her set to be the ramp of a landing vessel or a hill down which fallen soldiers, or Marines, can tumble following their shooting or evaporation by missile or mine.

The conflict  between men and women, if overdone and plotted more self-consciously than organically, raises points that need to be heard. A scene in which a soldier negates his barrackmates’ contention that all woman soldiers are whores or bitches is underscored by one soldier who professes love for one of the women in the squadron. In a parallel scene, his beloved expresses her difference as her cohorts echo the men and define themselves as whores or bitches. What happens next is one of the more unsettling and telling scenes of “Don Juan” because you believe what you’re seeing most likely happens in military encampments.

Scenes with Cressida show Juan can be attracted to a woman for the right reasons. He can be honestly affectionate to Cressida until his macho ways intercede or he cannot stand that she, more often than not, has a mind of her own and intends to use it to make decisions Juan can like or lump for all she cares.

When scenes play tautly, they play well.

Too much in “Don Juan” seems invented just to make theater or thrown in to give a cast member something to do.

While there is a rare bit of satire involved in dressing Sarah Gliko’s Mutter Museum curator in black garments that give the impression of leather, elbow-length black gloves and all, the bit seems more precious than poignant.

Gliko, looking half dominatrix and half elegant society woman, shows Juan specimens her museum features in its exhibitions. Femurs shattered by Civil War cannon shells, a boarding pass for a downed American Airlines flight from September 11, 2001, and other gruesome items are shown by Gliko’s curator, to Juan as they removed from blood red gift boxes. The graphic touches are humorous, but the purpose of the scene seems heavy-handed, as  most of “Don Juan” does.

People disdain war naturally. Zizka’s combat scenes show the devastation that triggers anti-war instinct. Vogel’s dialogue just mouths the lesson. It also generalizes to include all conflict, as if peace was the opposite of war and not the result of no threat, no attacks by al Qaeda, no ambushes by insurgences, no armed initiatives to grab power, no land grabs by Saddam Hussein or Vladimir Putin, and no threat to security and the public tranquility. War can be attacked, but defense has to be understood. Vogel doesn’t seem to grasp or deign to tackle that distinction.

So, you have some strong images and statements on one hand. Conallen’s longest speech, one in which he finally emotes about being a soldier and what is costs him, is a gem of writing and acting. With it, you have the expression of ideas, some of which are half-baked, not  because they are controversial or make some people uncomfortable or are matters about which some may disagree, but because they are not thought out fully. They are thrown into the script as so many politically correct decorations that masquerade as depth or trenchant commentary.

The scenes from Philadelphia past are a mixed bag, the owner of the Tun Tavern giving an amusing perspective on the Continental Congress’s founding of the Marines, a companion sequence with Benjamin Franklin not being as witty or effective. One comment about the Bellevue Stratford and the outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease in 1976 is downright daft. Besides getting the history wrong — “Don Juan” says it was the Hyatt that stepped in to refurbish and rescue the Bellevue when it was the Fairmont chain — Vogel’s script implies the Bellevue should have been preserved as a monument to corporate neglect or torn down. What, abandon a wonderful  bit of period architecture and city history when all it needs is new ventilation ducts?!? Vogel may have thought she was making a statement. I heard liberal bilge on the hoof. Bilge of the exact kind that usually gets in the way of Philadelphia’s progress as a city.

“Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” has moments that thrill and provoke thought in an honest way, but they are scattered throughout the play and usually emerge when Zizka is at the helm, and words take second place to pictures, or Conallen is showing a new or more dehumanized side to Juan’s psyche.

Repetition of the elements that work best and larding with extraneous scenes that seem to have their roots in improvisation overwhelm what is good. The Wilma’s effort to produce Vogel’s play is noble, but it ends in failure. In the long run, “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” becomes tedious and even boring. Against my will, I muttered aloud, “Not another scene” when one of what I consider two false endings was followed by more passages.

I became weary of “Don Juan” before its conclusion. I got the points and didn’t want to continue being beaten over the head with them. That said, the actual last scene, with Juan and Cressida united in spirit, was the appropriate one and made for a neat, organic ending.

As said throughout this review, Keith J. Conallen’s performance as Juan is sensational, a true acting achievement.

Conallen embodied the weight and the coldness of Juan. He internalizes more than he expresses, and you can see all that is welling inside him.

Juan is a man without pleasure. Even sex with him is animalistic, as Juan says during one tawdry episode.

Conallen is hard, a man conditioned to react and do a duty. Except for seeking Cressida, he has no purpose but to follow orders and fight on the battlefield du jour. Conallen is the universal soldier, restrained as an individual but poised to fight like a machine and given to debauching woman on any convenient occasion.

Humanity, when Conallen lets it peak out, is limited to Juan’s coping with illness and other outside elements that encroach on his basic existence. Because of Conallen’s riveting austerity, the momentary glimpses he gives of Juan needing Cassandra or acknowledging putting dignity ahead of pride to survive, is all the more effective.

In Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida,” the master has Cressida, debating in a soliloquy about whether to admit her love to Troilus, say, “Men prize the thing ungained.”

Vogel’s Cressida wants to be prized after being gained, and the audience wants that for her as well.

When we see Cressida in 2000, four years before the opening scene in which she appears, Kate Czajkowski presents her as a friendly, open, sensible young woman who offers a wandering Juan, on leave and in Philadelphia for the first time in his life, a tour of Old City and the historic sites.

Czajkowski plays Cressida as a free spirit who wants to explore a world in which she has acquired some independence and share it with this morose, taciturn soldier. Excuse me, Marine.

In subsequent scenes, Czajkowski is canny is showing the evolution and hardening of Cressida.

Juan quickly disillusions Cressida about romance, and the experience with Juan toughens her, renders her less romantic, and compels her to be more practical.

Cressida needs to go to school. She wants to improve her lot but can’t afford to do so. Liking a challenge, and wanting to prove to herself mostly that she can endure as much as Juan, she enlists in the Army reserve. In 2000, that seemed like a safe and pragmatic move. When September 11, 2001 comes, the reserve is needed, and Cressida is in Iraq under Juan’s command.

Although Juan is more obsessive, his attraction for Cressida is mutual. A more adult, more professional Cressida is, however, less willing to accept Juan’s macho or dominating ways. Czajkowski plays her maturing and self-possession beautifully, so well you wish Cressida had more to do or had a scene or two in which she could stand out and convey more variety.

Throughout “Don Juan’s” progression, Czajkowski’s character grows. The actress definitely does the most which what she’s given to convey.

Yvette Ganier is wonderful in all the roles she is asked to portray. She is a feisty Sheila, who shows both disdain for Juan and a woman’s sympathy for his weak condition (before showing a woman’s appreciation of his romantic talent).

Ganier is particularly touching as Levy, the soldier that falls in love with one of her male squadron members and who has an intense scene to play with Juan. Lindsay Smiling also stands out as the soldier Levy loves and agrees to marry.

Hannah Gold has two fine scenes as the Father Divine acolyte who is rejected when she seeks to comfort Juan and as a legless soldier who is unafraid to tell Juan of his perfidy and poor leadership.

I hope I didn’t sound as if I blamed Sarah Gliko for how much I dislike the character of Aggie, a role I think is overwritten. Gliko played it well enough to irritate me. I enjoy the elegance with which she played the Mutter Museum curator and the flirtatious way she had of displaying the museum’s grisly exhibits.

Melanye Finister has one of “Don Juan’s” warmest scenes as a military recruiter who wants to make sure Cressida is entering the service for the right reasons.

Kevin Meehan and Brian Ratcliffe are able and efficient soldiers — Marines!

Such effort went into “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq.” You can see the ingenuity and creativity with which it was crafted. I wish I could applaud Vogel, Zizka, and the Wilma production, but the minuses outweigh the pluses. I left the theater thinking, “Mixed bag. Some fantastic scenes. But I became bored.  C+”

Matt Saunders’s serviceable set is a technological delight as it rotates on its pyramidic axis. Vasilija Zivanic’s costumes were appropriate for combat and witty at other times. Zivanic did go a little overboard on Aggie’s attire.

Daniel Perelstein’s score and sound design added measurably to Zizka’s vision. The smoky sunlight coming off the bow of the Marine launch was artistic and evocative. Kudos to Michael Cozenza for his fight sequences.

“Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” runs through Sunday, April 20 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (no performance on April 8), 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, April 16. Tickets range from $66 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or going online to www.wilmatheater.org.

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One comment on “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq — Wilma Theater

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