Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Don Juan In Hell

Post Contributed by Gabrielle Weinstein

Don Juan In Hell

by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Karen Case Cook
Produced by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble

Nominations: Karen Case Cook is nominated for Outstanding Director; Tsubasa Kamei and Jennifer Stimple-Kamei are nominated for Outstanding Set Design; Ellen Mandel is nominated for Outstanding Original Music; Jason O'Connell is nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role; and Don Juan in Hell is nominated for Outstanding Revival of a Play
      Photos by Gerry Goodstein

About the Production
Having already lived their personal histories, the Devil, the Commander, Dona Ana and Don Juan meet in Hell to concentrate on a far larger and more universal story – that of Humankind. Shaw’s intellect sets the stage; his fervor and wit light it. What absorbs his attention is not a place, but humanity’s existence and survival.

I recently spoke with the team from Don Juan in Hell. Producer Elise Stone, Composer Ellen Mandel, Set Designers Tsubasa Kamei and Jennifer Stimple-Kamei, and Don Juan himself, Jason O'Connell, all had a lot to say about their unique and “liberating” experience on working together to create this play.


What attracted you to working on this project?

Elise: This play was written in 1903 - and yet feels more timely, pertinent and necessary than ever.

This was my second time to design set (and lights) for the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. They always choose interesting classic works and challenge them with a new and modern interpretation. I like their approach very much and the challenge attracted me to work on the show. Their actors are also always delightful to work with. With the Phoenix I can truly collaborate with everyone in the production team to make theatre happen. It is very attractive to me.

I was attracted to many things about this production. I thought the script was smart, I knew that the scenery would be a challenge and I had wanted to work with Phoenix Theatre Ensemble for quite a while.

I was eager to work again with talented colleagues at the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, and to work on another play by George Bernard Shaw.

I'm always drawn to working with Craig and Elise and Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, having now done 8 shows with them since they formed the company in 2004. I also love working with this particular director, Karen Case Cook. Mostly, though, I remembered loving the play and the role from a staged reading I did with PTE 5 years earlier.

What was your favorite part of working on this project?

Elise: This was an extraordinary ensemble of theatre artists - every person single person involved was.

My favorite part was when we finally put everything together at the theatre during the tech. I liked it because the collaboration with everyone's work finally met together and blended so well that it was very magical.

My favorite part about working on Don Juan in Hell would have to be attending rehearsals. Phoenix Theatre are a close bunch. Though the production was a bit serious, we laughed a lot.

Attending rehearsals to get the feel of the play on its feet, and collaborating with director Karen Case Cook to agree on the feel of the music for various moments in the show. And of course, I always love the fascinating process of actually writing the music, in this case, the hypnotic interest of creating synthesized instrumental sounds for the music cues for the timeless atmosphere of Hell.

The people, and the ease we all had with each other. We had very little time to put the show together - and it's a difficult piece - but I very clearly recall the joy of coming to rehearsals, and how effortlessly our small group would make the most of every rehearsal block. The demands of the text and the limitation of the schedule probably should have made the experience stressful, but I don't ever recall it feeling that way. It was a very kind, beautiful, liberating atmosphere. That came from the people.

What was the most challenging part of working on this production?

Tsubasa: The most challenging part was to design the scenery for such an intimate play in a very closed space. We had to come up with the configuration of the chairs and risers for the audience as well. The set and the setting needed to be in a way as "natural" as possible so that the audience can not only watch the show, but also experience being in the atmosphere with the actors. We thought no other ways would work for this production.

The most challenging part of working on Don Juan in Hell was changing the atmosphere of the space. The production was in a smaller venue, so some of our options were limited. We tried to surround the room with as much of the scenery as possible to help the audience feel as though they were part of an intimate gathering, which is what Don Juan in Hell was.

Determining when music should enter and leave---often a tricky element, especially with subtle underscoring.

It may sound trite, but learning the lines! -- and humanizing them, for lack of a better term. Shaw's play is absolutely brilliant, but it features many incredibly dense and complex philosophical monologues, and we only had about ten days of rehearsal before tech. I feared that - even though I'm a quick study - I might not be ready this time, and that, even if I DID successfully cram the lines in there, I'd sound as if I were giving a lecture, not playing a role. The lines were hard work, but accessing the core of the man was not as difficult as I feared, thanks to Karen's remarkable direction (she truly embraced the idea that this was a passionate argument among human beings, as opposed to a philosophical debate between archetypes), and the genius of George Bernard Shaw. Like Shakespeare, his ideas and use of language can feel daunting at the outset, but once the part reveals itself to you, it feels like there could be no more natural way to express yourself.

What was the most interesting aspect for working on this production?

Tsubasa: Everything we did as a production was very innovative. The theatre was owned by three (or so) different companies, so that finding the right answer for the space was odd. There was no lobby, so the front of house people had a challenge. It is on the East 4th street, so everyday we had some funky incidents with pedestrians. Changing the mood during each actor's monologue with LED light boxes as background was very innovative! And we had a cute little remote control for it!

It was quite odd to write music both comic and moody for a show that's comic and serious and takes place in hell, and takes off from Mozart's Don Giovanni.
Jason: I began the show onstage in a meditative state. I was in place before the house opened every night, so the audience would find me there as they took their seats. It was a beautiful moment, and I loved being there each night, eyes closed (for the most part), silently improvising for upwards of 30 minutes before the first line was spoken. But it was always fascinating to listen to the audience during that pre-show. It was a small, intimate space with audience seated on two sides of the stage. Sometimes they would chatter away as if they were oblivious to the presence of a man attempting to commune with the universe three feet away from them. Sometimes they would talk about what show they had seen me in last. They would ask each other whether I was sleeping, praying, meditating, etc. They would wonder aloud if I was even an actor in the show. Then there were nights where I felt pressure because they were SO silent, it seemed that they felt the show had begun (which, of course, it had, in a way). I felt that they were waiting for me to start, I began to worry about being "interesting", and then - finally - I just let it go. I thought: okay - if they want to commune with me here, meditate with me, pray with me, or just silently respect me in this moment... if they want to experience the quiet contemplation of this version of Hell with me, then that's ultimately a beautiful thing. It was a very special experience.

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