A tale of passion, lust and justice lands at Off the Wall with "Giovanni"
Unbridled lust coupled with almost impossible deceit climbs every womanly mountain until, unchecked by restraint, it becomes worn beyond all reason.
Such is the crux of the morality play "Giovanni," created by Dale Gutzman and running at the Off The Wall Theatre through May 25.
This production is vintage Gutzman, one of the most creative and inventive minds working in Milwaukee theater.
On one hand, it is a mere trifle, a recounting of Don Juan (like Mozart's "Don Giovanni"), the salacious and indiscriminate swordsman who manages to romantically duel with thousands of women across Europe. Everyone from a nun in a convent to a maid on the eve of her wedding are fair game for this Lothario savant who is most learned in the ways of the flesh.
Nothing is too crass, nothing too sacred, nothing too off limits. There are no limits to this Giovanni.
But just as we get set to relax as we gaze with a slight smile at his plunder of the fairer sex, the story turns on a dime, and far from the free-wheeling beginning, we are soon thrust (and I use that word on purpose) into a crushing morality that underpins all belief of a civilized society.
Giovanni gets his just due. His past is revealed as a 9-year-old boy, falling under the spell of adults who introduce him to the pleasures and delights of the flesh. That one of those adults has grown into the Mother Superior of the convent where Giovanni seduced a young nun only adds to the sense of the inevitable.
Like any play featuring an unrepentant sinner, it is those he has sinned against who come back to wreak the revenge he so desperately avoids. But when the end comes for Giovanni, this play has done away with humor and dalliance, and instead rustles our inner selves with a "Thank God. Justice is served."
Gutzman presides over a tiny theater at the feet of the mighty Jay and Patty Baker complex that houses the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. But he stands on an equal footing for creativity on a mere pittance of the budget at the Rep.
Gutzman is helped here by withering performances from Jeremy C. Welter and David Flores. Welter is Giovanni, and Flores is his semi-devoted servant Leporello.
From the moment that Welter walks on stage, clad in black with long ringlets of curls on his head, the sleaze factor climbs without hesitation. He is everything that nobody wants to ever be. He lies, he cheats, he ridicules, he takes advantage, he refuses to admit any fault and the women love him for it.
He has this persona nailed. We love him and are repulsed by him at the same time. We see the weakness he is blind to, and we understand the passion he stirs in his victims (who are not so much victim as equal participant).
Flores is the conscience of Giovanni. He knows his master does wrong but is unable to save Giovanni from himself. He has his own weakness and clearly understands that it is his own frailty that keeps him bound to Giovanni.
Flores has had some wonderful turns on stage this year, most notably in "In The Heights" at Skylight, but this performance is right up there on his resume.
There are also two women in this cast who deserve special mention, Michelle Waide and Alexandra Bonesho. Waide is the Mother Superior, while Bonesho is the young nun who was ravaged by Giovanni in the convent.
Bonesho continues to be a marvel onstage and is proving to have a versatility that surprises me. This part is full of depth, and she finds it for the audience with ease and style.
Waide is a veteran actor who is seen far too infrequently on Milwaukee stages. The moment when she reveals the past to Giovanni is one of the most touching scenes I've seen all year.
It is left to Giovanni to explain where his power over women comes from.
"They love me as a concept," he tells Leporello. "They hate me as a man, but they love me as a concept."
Half of that statement is also true of yet another savvy Gutzman production: I loved it as a concept.
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