From the moment the skeletons begin their dance at the start of the play, it’s clear “Man of the Flesh,” now at the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage, is not going to be your usual show.
For one thing, the story is hardly conventional. Ostensibly, it is a story about Juan Tenorio, the son of a Mexican-American landscaper from the barrio who lives for seduction until he falls in love with the wealthy, unattainable daughter of an Anglo client in La Jolla.
But, in fact, the play is really a contemporary depiction of two mythical forces in collision: sex and death. There’s the sensual world of the Don Juan, the ultimate “Man of the Flesh,” and the nether world world of the dead, which includes a host of people he has killed in his pursuit of pleasure.
This modern version of the traditional myth is as hard to pin down as the story; the multiple layering of characters and the complex story line are both intriguing and perplexing. Like Juan himself, the play alternately leaves you satisfied and asking for more.
One of the surprises of this handsome, lush production, written by Octavio Solis and directed by Sam Woodhouse and Jorge Huerta, is that from time to time, though this modern-day Don Juan is neither softened nor sentimentalized, one roots for him as one would root for life. As played by the very appealing Javi Mulero, Juan Tenorio manages to be at once charismatic and ruthless, seductive and repellent. The moment one dismisses him, there is an almost hypnotic desire to pull him back, if only to see what outrageous thing he will do next.
Fighting on Juan’s side is the life force itself, symbolized by the succulent tropical sets and exotic costumes and props designed by Victoria Petrovich, the sensual, blood-pumping score composed by Fredrick B. Lanuza, the rich lighting by Brenda Berry and the undulating dance movements choreographed by Miguel Delgado.
But there’s another side to the story, too. Fighting against him are the ghosts he has injured along his heedless way, as epitomized by Petrovich’s skeleton costumes and brightly painted skulls, Lanuza’s whispering, haunting score, Berry’s illumination of the dark side of the night, and Delgado’s menacing choreography.
That the same actors play the parts in the barrio as those on the wealthy Downey estate is a stroke of symbolic brilliance. The implication is that they are all the same under the skin, as Romelia (Giselle Rubino), Lorena (Jeanette Sepulveda) and Martina (Cristina Soria) are impregnated by Juan in the barrio and then later romanced and seduced again as Anne Downey (Rubino), Heather Downey (Sepulveda) and Mrs. Downey (Soria) on the great estate.
These women all handle the transitions smoothly, as does Alma Martinez in her triple role as the libidinous Downey maid, Juan’s dead mother who comes back to condemn him, as well as a third spirit who proves to be Juan’s fatal attraction at the end of the play.
Hector Correa injects needed humor in the role of Fracas, Juan’s friend and fellow landscaper, who also intermittently narrates much of the story in rap.
“Man of the Flesh” is the latest in the San Diego Rep’s Teatro Sin Fronteras (theater without borders) program, which will include seven Spanish performances under the title “El Ladron de Corazones” interspersed among the English performances running through Feb. 3.
“Man of the Flesh” is a complex choice to include in a series of Latino-oriented material. This story about lust and the class struggle isn’t flattering to anyone--neither Latino nor Anglo--and yet it is illuminating because of its literary origins. Since a version of Juan was first penned by Spanish friar Tirso de Molina in the early 17th Century, it has attracted and been reworked by the likes of Moliere, Corneille, Goldoni, Mozart, Lord Byron, Aleksandr Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, Richard Strauss, George Bernard Shaw, Edmond Rostand and Bertolt Brecht.
Don Juan also occupies a special place on the Mexican Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), when it is traditional to attend a production about the famous libertine. That’s the link that playwright Solis, who sets his story on the Day of the Dead, chooses to explore here.
But why the link between Juan and the Day of the Dead? On that holiday, when the living and the dead are believed to be able to communicate, Juan traditionally gets his comeuppance.
And yet, the irony of the comeuppance is that it is never as absolute as it seems at the time. People cheer for his defeat at the end of the play only because there is that tacit assurance that next year, Juan will come back for more. But why would anyone want such a bad fellow to return? Solis doesn’t say. His play, like the Don Juan myth itself, leaves such questions unanswered.
“MAN OF THE FLESH”
Written and translated by Octavio Solis. Directors are Sam Woodhouse and Jorge Huerta. Music and sound composed, performed and recorded by Fredrick B. Lanuza. Sets and costumes by Victoria Petrovich. Lighting by Brenda Berry. Choreography by Miguel Delgado. Vocal direction by Linda Vickerman. Dramaturgy by Guillermo Reyes. Stage manager is Jerome J. Sheehan. With Hector Correa, Gonzalo Madurga, Alma Martinez, Andres Monreal, Javi Mulero, Giselle Rubino, Jeanette Sepulveda and Cristina Soria. English performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays, with Sunday matinees at 2, through Feb. 3 Spanish performances as noted: Jan. 18, 8 p.m.; Jan. 19, 2 p.m.; Jan. 26, 2 p.m.; Feb. 2, 2 and 8 p.m.; Feb. 3, 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $18-22. At 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, 235-8025.