Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre to Bring 'DON JUAN' to Jan Hus Playhouse, 4/10-5/4

Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre to Bring 'DON JUAN' to Jan Hus Playhouse, 4/10-5/4Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre returns to the Jan Hus Playhouse, 351 East 74th Street, April 10 to May 4 with "Don Juan, or Wages of Debauchery," conceived and directed by Vit Horejs, adapted and directed from an anonymous play of itinerant puppeteers.

In 18th century Europe, Don Juan ("Don Shayn") was among the top "hits" of the Czech marionette repertoire. The only theatre truly available in small towns and villages were shows by itinerant puppeteers. Their plays were a whimsical mixture of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," heroic legends, and rudimentary pre-Shakespearean tragedies. There is nothing very glamorous about the character of Don Juan in the Czech puppet play--he ends up as a common robber, hungry, rejected by all his former conquests and riled constantly by his inept servant Kasparek, the earthy Bohemian cousin of Mr. Punch and Leporello.

The production is perfectly OK for the kiddies. There is no profanity and Don Juan's womanizing is done at the Warner Brothers cartoon level. Reviewing the production's 2003 debut at La MaMa, the NY Times (Laurel Graeber) wrote that children over six "love the slapstick and the insults, which Don Juan apparently honed in second grade. (He calls Kasparek a 'goofy guinea pig.')." The production was deemed "a hilarious interpretation of a classic."

The play takes the basic plot of the Opera "Don Giovanni," even with a little singing from it, and turns it into a platform for a burlesque between Don Juan and his servant, the impish Kasparek. Kasparek, a stock character in the Czech puppet repertoire, is played by Theresa Linnihan in a comic tour-de-force. He has the mentality of Curly Joe and a similar squeaky voice. The bickering between master and servant is most of the play. Don Juan is wonderfully underplayed by the deep-voiced Vit Horejs.

As an historical character, Don Juan is mostly remembered for his womanizing, but in this play it's really incidental: just a single chase scene for a beautiful girl puppet between Don Juan and a rival, his brother. This is just enough to introduce Don Juan's fiancee's father, whom he kills (oops!). This sets up Kasparek's first really hilarious scene, when he discovers the corpse. From there, Don Juan goes on a comic killing spree and Kasparek is in stellar form, particularly when he is charged with standing guard while Don Juan is dealing with the old Hermit. Kasparek is supposed to whistle if there's trouble and the scene climaxes as the little imp meets the devil, who is coming to take Don Juan to perdition.

Under Austro-Hungarian, Nazi and Communist domination, Czech puppetry contained pointed political satire by concealing sharp criticism in familiar tales. For over 30 years, Czech puppet impresarios have experimented with shattering illusion of the hidden puppeteer by having human actors perform opposite their wooden counterparts. Stylistically, Vit Horejs falls in with the prominent modernists of this form. Citing the 1997 production of "Hamlet," Time Magazine (Emily Mitchell) credited Horejs with "uniting the honored tradition with post-modern sensibilities, giving his mute figures from a bygone era a startling new place in the theater." UPI (Fred Winship), reviewing "Hamlet" at the Jan Hus Playhouse, described how CAMT's aproach "reflects a new trend in Czech puppetry. It shatters the illusion of traditional marionette theater, with invisible puppeteers pulling the strings, by having the puppeteers on stage as human actors performing opposite their wooden counterparts."

In this production, Downtown meets the Folk Tradition. High and low, live performers and puppets of disparate sizes are blended to a startling comical and sometime touching effect. The puppets include antiques, puppets designed and constructed by master carver Jakub Krejci, toy puppets by Prague-based Milos Kasal, and a giant surprise by Alan Barnes Netherton. The actor/puppeteers are Deborah Beshaw, Otis Cotton, Tessa Wonton, Vít Horejs and Theresa Linnihan. Costumes are by Theresa Linnihan and Egypt Dixon. Set design is by Theresa Linnihan and Alan Barnes Netherton. Music is composed expressly by Court Kappelmeister Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The play's alternate title is an apt and humorous synopsis. It is also known as "Don Giovanni, Don Sajn, Don Shayn & Don J Or Two Grooms for one Bride Or Killing Two Fathers with One Sword Or Else the Unabreviated True Tragycal Scandalous Story of hys Innumerable Crimes and Gallant Exployts and How That Most Notoryous and Dissolute Libertine and Patricide Came to His Untymelye End In the Eternal Fyre of the Unfathomable Flamyng Pytt of Perdytion after He had Wooed His Promised Spouse for the Second Tyme in The Grave Yard on The Tombstone of her Unjustlie Murdered Father Whom He Invyted to a Twelve-Course Dinner And How he Came to Bytterlie Regret This Caper."

Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Comment & Share

About Author

Subscribe to Author Alerts