A Chance in Hell

If you're searching for good news about area theater, Sarasota yields something to get excited about. The Banyan Theater Company, founded by Jerry Finn and made up of current and former Asolo Theatre Company actors David Breitbarth, V Craig Heidenreich, Tessie Hogan and Bradford Wallace, has started its first summer season with two successful productions: Harold Pinter's Betrayal and George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell.

The Banyan's Betrayal, which closed a couple of weeks ago, was simply terrific: superbly staged, splendidly acted and featuring elegant sets and costumes. Watching it, you couldn't help but suspect that Banyan's announced mission — to showcase "outstanding actors performing in plays of high literary merit" —wasn't hype at all but instead a description of a new reality. And now the fledgling company has confirmed its promise with a fine "concert version" of Don Juan in Hell, Shaw's much-celebrated meditation on the subject of Creative Evolution. Two winners in a row make a trend: Banyan, it seems, is a force to be reckoned with. And summers on the Gulf Coast have just gotten more interesting.

Don Juan is more a four-way conversation than a drama, though it begins and ends with something like a "plot." Dona Ana, an elderly woman, finds herself in hell and meets Don Juan, who many years before lusted after her. She naturally assumes that someone's made a mistake — that she actually belongs in heaven with other "ladies." But Don Juan refuses to validate her feelings and tries to persuade her to accept her destiny. Unconvinced, Ana transforms into a woman of 27 (in hell, one can choose one's own age) just in time to be joined by her father — The Statue that dragged Don Juan into hell — and the Devil. What follows for the next hour or so is an intellectual quartet on the subjects of duty and hedonism, evolution and stagnation, difficult "real" life and easy illusion. The language is scintillating, the opinions are provocative, and the plot is nonexistent — at least until the end, when Don Juan leaves in search of heaven and The Statue, tired of heaven, settles into hell.

But oh, that long middle section and its wonderfully intelligent dialogue. What Shaw does in this section is paint a portrait of two ways of life, one devoted exclusively to personal pleasure and the other focused on assisting "life in its struggle upward." Hell, in this portrait, is a home for lovers, sensualists and aesthetes: as The Statue tells Dona Ana, "Hell ... is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself." Heaven, on the other hand, is a realm of virtuous difficulty, where the denizens strive to encourage human evolution with its ultimate aim, the creation of a "superman." And what divides the inhabitants of one place from the other is nothing more metaphysical than ordinary taste. As the Devil puts it, some people prefer the racecourse and some prefer the concert hall, and "do the lovers of racing desert their sport and flock to the concert room?" Conversely, the inhabitants of Shaw's heaven are free to go to hell, but prefer "a higher, more cultivated, poetic, intellectual, ennobling place than the racecourse."

Now Shaw being Shaw, the conversation is delicious even when it's not quite germane. So the Devil has a long speech about the human love of up-to-date firepower: "In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. ... His heart is in his weapons." Going on in this vein, the Devil rebukes governments for preferring to make war when they could be reducing poverty, and generally comes across, for a few minutes, anyway, as a reformist politician. Don Juan, on his side, declares that Man has built civilization in order to "make himself something more than the mere instrument of Woman's purpose" — that purpose being "getting children and rearing them." And as spokesmen for Shaw's particular theory of the Life Force, Don Juan asserts that evolution is aiming at an "ideal individual" who will finally allow Nature to fully understand itself. But the Devil has a prophetic warning: "Beware of the pursuit of the Superhuman: It leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the Human."

Now much of this is brilliantly stimulating, even when time has shown it to be wrongheaded. Most important, history has demonstrated that it's the devils, not the Don Juans, who have subscribed to the idea of Superman and who have wrought untold misery in the service of this chimera. And as for seeing women as essentially breeders, well, it's enough to make even the mildest feminist livid. Still, Shaw's humanism is so strong, it tends to mitigate his wildest opinions and dull the edge of his worst errors. No matter how odd his philosophy, one always senses behind it a fervently compassionate sensibility, and an intellect in search of humanity's highest good.

The Banyan production nicely emphasizes that worthy search with strong performances in an unusual "concert" style. What this means, plainly put, is that all four performers sit behind lecterns and read (at times) from scripts. The stage on which they sit is dominated by four large columns, and the players' formalwear further contributes to an ambience of elegant solemnity. And the acting is usually top-notch — as anyone familiar with these performers might have guessed. Heidenreich's Don Juan is passionately intellectual, Wallace's Statue delights us with his unexpected, comic candor, and Hogan's Dona Anna is insistently self-righteous in matters of religion and love. Only Breitbarth as the Devil fails to seem fully imagined, three-dimensional: a surprise, since this fine actor is usually a standout wherever he performs.

But perhaps the best thing about Don Juan is what it means for area theater: that Betrayal was no fluke, that Banyan won't shy away from difficult texts, that finally there's a theater on the Gulf Coast that's more interested in quality than in that excuse for shallow programming, "balance." Top actors in demanding, rewarding plays: who could ask for more?

I'm already impatient for Banyan's next, more complete summer season.

Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.Don Juan in Hell

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