CHARLESTON - Sudden blackness. Silence. Then resignation.
It’s another power outage, we’re told by one of the striking laborers who huddle around a railyard fire, serving as a kind of Greek chorus to Kneehigh Theatre’s “Don John.”
“Don’t worry,” another assures us. “After a minute, your eyes will get used to the dark.” It takes a bit longer for the senses to adjust to “Don John” itself. Set in Great Britain during the economically punishing, sexually liberating decade of the 1970s, this bleak but electrifying remake of the centuries-old Don Juan legend confounds expectation with every scene-almost with every line. Even the things we know are going to happen (for instance, that Icelandic hunk Gísli Örn Gardarsson, in the title role, will bare much and bed many before the night is through) happen in a surprising way. These jolts are sometimes ugly, often funny, and occasionally transcendent, as during one curtain call of the Spoleto Festival USA opening weekend, when a lovely and largely pregnant audience member was pulled onstage to dance with the cast under a spinning disco ball.
Director/adaptor Emma Rice doesn’t turn “Don John” into a feminist manifesto, though she does grant the extraordinary women of her cast a revenge scenario unlike anything Byron (“Don Juan”) or Mozart (“Don Giovanni”) would have envisioned. If you know either of those works, by the way, you’ll recognize many of the characters here: the ruined beauties Anna (Nína Doögg Filipusdoóttir), Elvira (Amy Marston) and Zerlina (Partycja Kujawska), each with her own reasons for welcoming Don John’s advances; Anna’s father (Dave Mynne), first a palsied invalid, later an avenging angel underscored by Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”; and Don John’s lackey, Nobby (Mike Shepherd), whose loyalty to the sex- and drug-addicted antihero is complicated, but seems to do mainly with access to semiconscious, photogenic females (he takes Polaroids-the ’70s, remember).
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Rice might have used the modern setting to root these people and their relationships in more recognizable ground; we get jokey references to “Grease” and Barbara Walters, but only in the show’s overwhelming climax do we sense that these heavy-bleeding hearts are bearing witness to our own times. Nor is there much to explain what makes Don John so damn irresistible, Gardarsson’s undeniable magnetism and athleticism aside. The differing fates of Anna, Elvira and Zerlina suggest that it’s not so much the frailties of the women themselves, as it is the relative strength of the men around them, that determines how deep Don John’s poisoned darts of seduction are bound to penetrate.
Each victim recovers, in her own way, as the production’s nihilistic nightmare surrenders to a tentative but hopeful new day. Even Vicki Mortimer’s industrial-wasteland set design, with seedy rooms built into vacant freight cars, assumes a kind of beauty in the end, as rusty old pieces and dime-store props reveal their symbolic purpose. The actors’ period wardrobes throughout are as pitch-perfect as the show’s mostly live music, composed and and directed by the phenomenal Stu Barker.
While not as purely captivating as Kneehigh’s first Spoleto triumph, “Tristan & Yseult” - a difference we might chalk up to the source material, at least partly - this production boasts enough of the company’s patented inventiveness, its eye for international talent and uncanny touch with a torch song, to speed a return to the United States later this year with a new work, “Brief Encounter.” Kneehigh’s plans, too, for a nomadic home (think: really big tent) called the Asylum, where audiences around the world might experience the Cornwall-based troupe’s unique brand of hyper-professional garage-band theatre, should leave fans as hot and bothered as Don John’s many conquests.
Spoleto viewers are apt to stumble out of this show wondering, at once, “How dare they?” and “When will they be back?” No sense stocking up on flashlight batteries and BeeGees albums. The next Kneehigh opus is sure to demand something, and to take us somewhere, completely different.