Blackbird Theatre goes to hell for the holidays with Molière’s Don Juan

Simon Webb and the Blackbird team continue their habit of bucking seasonal tradition with the absurd tale of Don Juan

It’s Sunday afternoon, and rehearsals are winding down for Blackbird Theatre’s adaptation of Molière’s Don Juan. Bent over and working alongside the stage crew and a few of the production’s younger actors, Simon Webb is peeling metres of tape from the floor. When director John Wright calls the esteemed 63-year-old actor into action for his role as Juan’s exasperated servant Sganarelle, Webb balls the tape in his hand and attempts a three-pointer to the garbage can. He misses, smiles, and shrugs. Twice.

Finally, it’s time to sit down in the lobby of the large Renegade Productions building that houses a number of small theatre companies. It also houses practice space for bands, as evidenced by the loud guitars that provide the background music to our conversation. Webb laughs.

“Reroofing, construction on the other side of the lane, and bands all day,” he says. “Country-western bands, goth screaming bands. All of it.”

But Webb is a pro and little fazes him at this point. This is his sixth show with the company, making him the unofficial face of Blackbird Theatre, he jokes.

“It’s not only a privilege, but it’s getting kind of scary, because you think, ‘Well, there’s going to be a point where I fail,’ ” Webb says. “That’s one of the wonderful things about John—he gives me freedom, makes strong demands, and I always have to go in a direction I’ve never gone before. And I know he has this attitude too: without the freedom to fail, you can’t really succeed in any meaningful way in art. I love the sense of risk and it not being a sure thing.”

Despite its status as a classic, Don Juan is anything but a “sure thing”. An absurdist tale that (spoiler alert) sends its womanizing title character to hell and opens during the sleepy sweet spot between Christmas and New Year’s? And yet it’s the kind of theatre work that Blackbird has cultivated for itself the last few years with Waiting for Godot (also starring Webb) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Powerful classics, yes, but typical holiday fare? Not a chance.

Like last year’s Godot, which reflected the sociopolitical strife of Occupy Wall Street, Don Juan addresses some hotbutton issues. “Polyamory is very current and there are some very interesting discussions,” Webb says. “I love what [Straight sex-column scribe] Dan Savage has to say about all that stuff: therelativism of our morality and the difficulty that causes for some people. Speaking personally as an atheist who is having a crisis of nonfaith, I’m finding that my atheism is quite inadequate to me. I’ve done two shows now back-to-back that put me squarely in the position of being a believer—and having to believe that I’m a believer.”

Webb has experienced these large questions before. He gave up acting for 10 years to pursue painting, a talent he only stumbled upon at 45. But when it came time to refocus his energies on making money he found his way back to the theatre community. One of his first roles was as the button moulder in Blackbird Theatre’s 2006 production of Peer Gynt. Webb compares the button moulder to Sganarelle, and recalls the direction that Wright offered back then, which remains his favourite to this day.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to give you any blocking. Just be present while I’m working on all the scenes and see how you want to spectate and insinuate yourself and observe and be the connection with the audience,’ ” Webb recalls. “And that’s very similar to the connection Sganarelle has in Don Juan. In fact, his name was coined by Molière himself, based on an Italian word meaning ‘he who sees’.”

But that clarity has been more theoretical than tangible for Webb—at least, up until about 20 minutes ago, when the actor finally sank into his role.

“The richness for me is in the relationship I have with Don Juan, and today we had a breakthrough where that relationship was so much more functioning,” Webb explains. “A lot more listening, a lot more communication, a lot more needs communicated to the other, and it was very serious. But we wish to lighten it, because the structure of the piece is, when it gets dark or difficult or dangerous, then we pick ourselves up and renew. See, it’s not a comedy in the modern TV sense of ‘This is only for your entertainment, your diversion.’ This is not for your diversion. It was written to make a real point.” He stabs his finger into the air and laughs. “A pointy point.”

With just days until opening night, Webb admits that he was starting to panic—though none of that was evident earlier in rehearsal, when the jokes were hitting and Webb kept improvising bigger, broader, and better approaches to his scene. His costars seemed invigorated by his live-wire energy, striving to match Webb’s approach, which is less that of an actor reciting lines than it is a real person reacting to a situation.

“I’m 63,” Webb says with a laugh. “I’m not going to waste a day just turning in a mechanical performance. Every moment is too important for that.” 

Blackbird Theatre presents Don Juan from Wednesday (December 26) to January 26 at the Cultch.

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