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Theater Mon Oct 27 2014

The Devil Wears Red Sneakers in Don Juan in Hell, a Shavian Dream Debate

The Devil, wearing red sneakers, is host to some of the finest artists and geniuses of time immemorial. The notorious Don Juan surprises us by not being happy in Hell. He wishes to spend eternity in Heaven, even though everyone knows it's boring up there. And he expounds in several long speeches about why he wants to change residence.

GB-George_Bernard_Shaw_1925-Nobel.jpgA word of admonition. George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell is not for everyone. If your preferred entertainment involves crashes, explosions and gunfire, or fast-paced comedy, you'd better head for the multiplex. This 105-minute Shavian exercise is talky, talky, talky--and brilliant. Don Juan in Hell is a rarely performed extract (act 3, scene 2) from Shaw's play Man and Superman, in which its hero, John Tanner, falls asleep and dreams of himself as Don Juan in hell, debating the Devil. Man and Superman is usually presented without this scene because of its length. So it's a rare treat to see it staged by Shaw Chicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

Shaw Chicago's reader-theater style of performance is perfect for the Don Juan scene. Four actors with pages and music stands. As the play opens, an old woman discovers that, upon her death, despite being "a lady and a faithful daughter of the church," she has arrived in Hell. Throwing off her veil, she becomes Doña Ana (Mary Michell), the daughter of a Spanish nobleman. Don Juan (Christian Gray) greets her. She is shocked to find that she is in hell, but Don Juan explains its virtues.

"Hell is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues. All the wickedness on earth is done in their name: where else but in hell should they have their reward? Have I not told you that the truly damned are those who are happy in hell?"

If she wishes to complain about being in Hell, she should discuss it with the Devil himself, Don Juan says; the Devil is the leader of the best society.

Doña Ana's father, the Commander (Richard Marlett), who went to heaven upon his death, visits Hell often because he finds Heaven dull and uncomfortable. He appears in the guise of his marble statue, clothed in a white suit. Doña Ana is not pleased that he has forgotten the name of his daughter.

The Commander wishes to speak to the Devil and the Prince of Darkness (Jack Hickey) appears, looking dapper in a black suit, red shirt and tie, and his demonic red sneakers.

The quartet of characters is complete and the remaining dialogue constitutes debate, mainly between Don Juan and the Devil, on Shaw's favorite targets. The church, organized religion, relations between man and woman, and according to the Devil, "the country where I have the greatest following: England." The Devil expresses his distaste for the views of Heaven and Hell expressed by those Italian and English poets (Dante and Milton).

Hell is a place far above their comprehension: they derive their notion of it from two of the greatest fools that ever lived, an Italian and an Englishman. The Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street. The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible. What else he says I do not know; for it is all in a long poem which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through.

The dialogue is metaphysical and witty, but many of the speeches by Don Juan and the Devil, especially in the last half of the show, are really too long. Some judicious editing could bring this production in under 90 minutes. All of Shaw's works contain a good measure of philosophizing on matters of life, love and politics, but Don Juan in Hell is pure ideology and thus will be most appreciated by serious GBS fans.

Christian Gray is appropriately sardonic and witty as Don Juan. Jack Hickey as the Devil had a little trouble with some of his lines, but he is charmingly nefarious. Michell and Marlatt both are competent matches for their wit. Under Robert Scogin's capable direction, Shaw Chicago does a sparkling job with this verbally acrobatic discourse.

Don Juan in Hell had a period of fame in the 1950s when a quartet of famous actors toured the country, playing to packed houses. Charles Laughton directed and played the Devil, accompanied by Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer and Cedric Hardwicke. The tour was a huge success and an aural recording was issued, now out of print. However, you now can buy it on Amazon or iTunes or listen to it on YouTube.

Don Juan in Hell is being performed by Shaw Chicago through Nov. 10 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. Performances are Saturday, Sunday and Monday at varying times. Tickets are $30 and can be bought online or by calling 312-587-7390.

Photo of George Bernard Shaw in 1925 at the time he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Public domain.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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