Film director Tim Burton would love the Goth Girls in Theater Emory's production of Odon von Horvath's "Don Juan Comes Back from the War." Tattooed with crosses and dressed in diaphanous black, they do perverse things with a snowman, mocking the title character as he trudges back from his long and winding journey.
With its lovely costumes, evocative sound design, imaginative sets and high-caliber cast, this posh treatment of the rarely performed 1936 play has some playful moments and magical images.
The Hungarian-born Horvath chronicles Berlin in the tawdry aftermath of World War I. On the timeline of German culture, it is a moment worth remembering: a decadent coda to the purity and despair of Wedekind's "Spring Awakening" and a pungent prelude to the full-out flowering of the Weimar Republic.
The play's themes of social, sexual and economic chaos will speak for themselves. A war has been lost. There's a globe-altering outbreak of influenza. People are standing in bread lines.
But Don Juan (James Donadio) and shock-artist Anita Berber (Ellen McQueen) are hardly paragons of restraint. The over-arching conceit of the play, of course, is that Don Juan has bedded every woman he encounters. He may have buried some, too, much to the chagrin of the elegantly turned out grandmother (played by the always-elegant Shannon Eubanks). And when he rents a room from a mother with two daughters, he's able to double-dip. (As the affection-starved mama, Mary Lynne Owen is delightful.)
Director Janice Akers has a fine eye, and shows exquisite taste in her choices of the jazz, opera and cabaret tunes that make up the soundscape. Leslie Taylor's set —- a two-tiered hodgepodge of randomly painted doors —- and Marianne Martin's wonderfully detailed costumes are splendid.
But meaning crumbles in Christopher Hampton's turgid and rambling translation. While you admire Emory for affording its faculty, students and some of the town's top artists a sumptuous toy chest for practicing their art, the show feels a little self-indulgent. Twelve actors playing some 36 characters in an obscure play by a forgotten playwright: It's like a classroom project gone wild.
In the end, "Don Juan" comes off like a museum piece. It's worth a look, but it may be too rarefied and abstruse for general audiences.
"Don Juan Comes Back from the War"
7 tonight. 2 p.m. Sunday. $14-$18. Theater Emory, Mary Gray Munroe Theater, 605 Asbury Circle, Dobbs University Center, Emory University. 404-727-5050, arts.emory.edu