It’s a funny feeling and not always a welcome one when a play reaches out across the centuries and punches you in the throat. This happens toward the end of “Dom Juan,” Ashley Tata’s gender-swapped production of Molière’s 1665 tragicomedy at Bard’s SummerScape festival.
Dom Juan (Amelia Workman), libertine extraordinaire, has finally reformed. Or has she? Turns out, her piety is just a pose. “In today’s world the finest role you can play is that of the morally upright person,” Dom Juan explains to her long-suffering, devious servant Sganarelle (Zuzanna Szadkowski). “The profession of hypocrite has countless perks.”
Her cynical avowal speaks — loudly — of politics today. But wait. It gets worse. This same speech seems to prefigure internet trolling (“hypocrites create a cabal of the like-minded, if you attack one, they all turn on you”) and the way that so-called cancel culture seldom cancels anyone in power (“they just bow their heads, sigh contritely, roll their eyes, and everyone forgives them”). Lines like these might suggest savvy interpolations by the authors of this new translation: Gideon Lester, the artistic director of the Fisher Center at Bard, and Sylvaine Guyot. But no, they’re faithful renditions of the 17th-century original. The language has barely been updated.
Great playwrights often have themes that they return to, over and over again. Molière’s is hypocrisy. Which should make Dom Juan, a freethinker who spends most of the play discarding social convention as casually as you or I might wad a Kleenex, a hero. Or as in this production, a heroine. Sure, Dom Juan remains a seducer. But a woman doing what she wants with her body? Sounds nice!
Dom Juan’s reality is more complicated — for Molière and for Tata, too. Here is how Sganarelle describes her boss: “The greatest scoundrel who ever walked the earth, a fury, a dog, a devil, a rat, a blasphemer who doesn’t believe in heaven or hell or werewolves or anything.” Which doesn’t sound as great.
“Dom Juan” asks questions — perennial ones — about what an individual owes the community and what she owes herself. As seductive as it is to see a woman resist subjugation, we are now years removed from #girlboss slogans, which is to say that the idea of freedom in the absence of ethics or solidarity has lost its shimmer. And a particular lesson of the pandemic has been how easily freedom can be weaponized, how it can make other people less free.
Tata’s busy, restless production introduces these complications, though it sometimes forgets them amid the commotion of the sock puppet, the rock band, the swordplay, the lace cuffs, the haze and some very cool visual and sonic effects. (Afsoon Pajoufar designed the set, with lighting by Cha See, video design by Lisa Renkel and sound design by Chad Raines.) I laughed out loud when the show’s curtain — a tapestry of a pastoral scene — appeared to shrivel and burn. Because what fun! But for a long time in the middle, the play goes nowhere, breathlessly, and pleasure palls before Dom Juan’s comeuppance arrives.
As Lester and Guyot have respected Molière’s original text, the gender-swap rarely feels complete. A woman could never have behaved this way in Molière’s day. She could barely behave this way now. Still, the swashbuckling role remains a showcase for Workman, an actress of both swagger and steel. Her Dom Juan is groovy, rowdy, but also adamantine, so unmoved by others that she is half-statue already. The supporting cast doesn’t always equal her, but Jordan Bellow offers lovely physical comedy as Dom Juan’s deserted husband, Elver, and Szadkowski’s Sganarelle has some fine unruly moments.
Despite its adornments and seductions, the play is bitter at its heart. Invest too deeply in Dom Juan’s liberation or even in her punishment and the ending will leave a bad taste. The only alternative is not to care — to lose yourself instead in the production’s delights, which is not a particular chore on a sun-drenched afternoon.
Otherwise, you might find yourself thinking, uneasily, of the play’s prescient moral, spoken by Sganarelle: “To have power and a wicked soul — that’s a terrible thing.”
Through July 17 at the Fisher Center LUMA Theater; fishercenter.bard.edu. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.