Julia Osinchuk/the Gauntlet

Mixing up Don Juan

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Hedonism isn't as fun when the devil tricks you into it. The University of Calgary drama department's explores this reality with David Ives' Don Juan in Chicago. The production serves as MFA student David Owen's thesis project and the season opener for the department's 2008-09 program. Owen says the script hooked him immediately and was a no-brainer for inclusion in his possible choices.

"This play has one of the highest jokes per minute ratio I've heard of," Owen says. "It's along the lines of Joe Orton-- set 'em up, knock 'em down type of thing. The thing about David Ives that elevates him above surface comedy is the fact that it's as much fun for the audience as he's having with the audience-- the meta-theatrical aspects of the show, the direct audience address, the jokes in the structure of the play."

Though the Don Juan story, depicting a romancing lothario, is well known, Ives twists the conventional tale to one where Don Juan is actually forced into a pleasure-seeking lifestyle against his will when he makes a deal with the devil to live forever. He is made to make love to a different woman every day and embarks on a journey that brings the audience through at least 400 years. Owen says the differing time periods presented an interesting dynamic when the group started staging the play.

"When I sat down with the designer, we were talking about how we could use that," he recalls. "The script indicates that certain things are carried over from Spain to the present day for comedic effect. There's a skull in the first scene that becomes an ashtray and referred to by several of the characters. Even though he's in a run-down apartment in Chicago, it still resembles the castle in a few ways. In the design, there are hints of the castle in it. It looks like fake rock work in the apartment, where it was a real Gothic castle in the first scene."

U of C is the first of many theatre companies in Calgary to put on a production based around Don Juan this season. Owen believes that the tale's popularity lies in an overarching message that speaks to audiences.

"I think there's something metaphorical, or more accurately, allegorical about a character who doesn't regard the consequences and is just following his desires-- hedonistic to a fault," Owen says. "The twist with this play, which is another reason why I think it's quite clever, is that Don Juan is forced to be a Don Juan against his will-- the devil tricks him into becoming a glutton and pursuing every pleasure. In this one, he starts off with this same scenario, but he's forced to be with a different woman every day, which has given him no time to pursue those noble reasons."

The production's academic nature provides a good opportunity for students of all levels to work with staff members, creating a very dynamic working environment. Owen himself sees the creative process from many sides, having worked professionally, as well as teaching for seven years before returning to school. Even with all his background knowledge, he says going back to university with a clear idea of what he wants to achieve has helped him learn some invaluable skills.

"Every show challenges you in a different way, which is something you can't predict, so I'll never stop learning that way," Owen says. "What I've specifically focused on this year is the use of verse. I've always been sensitive to rhythm, because I'm a playwright as well, but learning the nuances with verse and having a real admiration for really great writers in the past was something I knew was there, but that I've never really delved into."