“Don Juan Comes Back from the War” to explore history, war

by Katherine Schreiber | 11/4/15 6:07pm

With barbed wire lining the back of the stage, the floor sloped at an angle and light bulbs dangling from a dilapidated staircase, the set of the theater department’s upcoming mainstage production “Don Juan Comes Back from the War” can only be described as apocalyptic.

Written by the Austro-Hungarian-born playwright Ödön von Horváth, the play tells the story of the soldier Don Juan, who returns from World War I to find that he is the only man alive in a world of women.

Once a notorious philanderer, Don Juan claims that he has come home from the war a changed man. As he searches for the fiancée he abandoned before the war, he has a series of encounters with other women.

The director, theater professor Peter Hackett, said that he and the cast had done research to understand the play’s historical context. The seemingly bizarre premise — that the world is populated solely by women — is not far from reality, he said. So many men had died in World War I that many women talked about “being the only ones there,” he said.

Theater professor Dan Kotlowitz said that the department chose the play in part because of its relevance to contemporary issues.

“We keep having these huge wars and we keep saying that they’re the ‘war to end all wars,’” he said. “That’s what they said about World War I, but really it was the war to begin all wars. It seems to me that we’re in the same place now as we were then, in a lot of ways.”

Von Horváth wrote “Don Juan” in Germany in 1936, several years after the Nazi party came to power. After the war, the country was in shambles, which Kotlowitz said is reflected in the play.

“There was a sense of real loss, and a real sense of loss of values,” he said. “The play is kind of about this valueless world.”

Thomas Latta ’18, who plays Don Juan, said that the play challenges the masculine idealization of women.

“[Don Juan] has this kind of ideal, this fantasy about what a woman should be and what his woman should be,” he said. “The play is kind of about shattering that.”

Kotlowitz said that the play also explores the idea of change while staying the same.

“Don Juan says he’s changed, that he’s different.” Kotlowitz said. “But he isn’t — all the time that he’s looking for his fiancée, he’s also sleeping with other women and being cruel to them. So the world really hasn’t changed, and he hasn’t changed, even though he thinks he has.”

Stage manager Veronica Burt ’16 said that she appreciated the play’s overt political commentary.

“In my opinion, there always needs to be a contemporary social, cultural, political reason for doing a piece,” she said.

She said that even though the audience never sees any fighting the impact and trauma of the war are constantly present.

Kotlowitz said that the play was also chosen because it offered a wide range of female roles. There are 35 female characters in the show, which means that the 11 female actors are constantly switching roles, Kotlowitz said.

“It’s really hard — they’ll go from one scene to another, and they’re suddenly a different character,” he said.

Hackett said that rapid quality of the play was a challenge. It is around 90 minutes long with no intermission, and is divided into short, three-or-four minute scenes. Because scenes and characters are constantly changing, he said it is important to create a sense of continuity.

Hackett compared the play’s vignette structure to a series of snapshots.

“It’s like looking in a scrapbook and seeing 20 or so pictures lined up that tell a story in chronological order,” he said. “They’re very brief snapshots, but they tell a tremendous amount about character and history.”

In many ways, “Don Juan” is a proto-feminist play, Kotlowitz said.

“There are all these women that suddenly have been empowered because all the men have been killed or have left,” Kotlowitz said. “All these women are finding their own power within the play as well.”

Latta said that he felt like the play was extremely modern for the time period in which it was written.

He said that one of his favorite scenes comes at the play’s end, when he comes to an inn and all the female characters start delivering lines like robots.

“It’s where the tables start to turn on me,” he said. “It always freaks me out.”

Latta said that the relationship between truth and fiction in the play is unclear.

“The whole play is this fantasy of reality, where it’s a little bit ambiguous what’s real and what’s in my head,” he said. “At the end it gets very wobbly and weird.”

The show’s set design also contributes to this sense of unreality. The entire stage is rigged, which creates a sense of distortion and forces actors to move in a different way, Burt said.

Burt said that the production has a unique focus on design.

“This show stands out in my mind as a really design-heavy show, and that’s something that Dartmouth doesn’t necessarily focus on all the time,” she said.

Because “Don Juan” is produced by the theater department, the show’s designers are all hired professionals, Kotlowitz said, such as set designer Bill Clarke, who designed the set for “A Walk on the Woods” on Broadway.

Kotlowitz said that he had been excited about the design opportunities that the play offered.

“It’s visually striking — there are these very intimate scenes that happen amidst the rubble,” he said.

Latta said that he found the sets to be both brutal and beautiful.

The play will be shown this weekend on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in Moore Theater. Next week, the show will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students and between $10 and $12 for community members.