CAMBRIDGE - Just in case there was any confusion on this point, Theatre de la Jeune Lune's Don Juan makes himself clear from his first scene, a conversation with his long-suffering servant: "It's not about women, Sganarelle. It's not about sex."
Indeed, neither Don Juan nor his doppelganger Don Giovanni, sharing the stage in "Don Juan Giovanni," the Minneapolis troupe's remarkable opera/drama mashup at the American Repertory Theatre, fits the stereotype of the sex-crazed seducer that the name, in any language, evokes. These are libertines of a different sort: driven not so much by lust as by a hunger for liberty in all its forms.
The shift in focus creates a fascinating if occasionally opaque theatrical event that often plays more like Beckett or Pirandello than its classical antecedents. The dual Dons and their two sidekicks - Sganarelle for Juan, Leporello for Giovanni - may be acting or singing their way through scenes adapted from Moliere's play and Mozart's opera, but the landscape they inhabit is the blank, vast, godless terrain of modern existential man.
The creators of "Don Juan Giovanni," Jeune Lune artistic director Dominique Serrand and longtime associate Steven Epp, underscore the bleakness of the emotional terrain by recasting their story as a quintessentially American road trip. Don Juan and Sganarelle tool around the stage in a vintage Plymouth (its bulky elegance slightly undercut by the visible multiwheeled mechanism that carries it), passing before video projections of a Vegas-like landscape, all desert skies and neon lights.
They meet Don Giovanni and Leporello at, where else, a drive-in, which is showing a hugely operatic movie: "Don Giovanni," of course, with its disturbing opening scene of Donna Anna fleeing from the rapacious leading man. Movie and reality collide, Giovanni and Leporello jump in the back of the Plymouth, and the narrative takes off on a careening, cavorting, and occasionally confusing joy ride through the mixed-up plots of opera and play.
Along the way, arias end up in unexpected mouths, but often to powerful effect. The heartbreaking devotion of an abandoned lover in "Dalla sua pace," for example, becomes freshly touching here, when it's given to the geeky, gawky car mechanic Peter, whose fiancee Charlotte has attracted Don Juan's ever-questing eye. You won't recognize those characters from Mozart, but the emotions they express are as Mozartean - and universally familiar - as they come.
This is not, obviously, a "Don Giovanni" for purists; besides balking at the mishmashing of plot and character, they'd surely be annoyed by some inconsistent vocal performances - particularly Bryan Boyce's Don Giovanni, who's more persuasively seductive than Serrand's own charming yet languid Don Juan but, like him, never overwhelms us with physical prowess. Perhaps they're choosing to bank the fires of lust in order to keep our focus where Jeune Lune's interest clearly lies, in the political implications of the Dons' rebellion against external authority, but the reduced physical intensity also diminishes our emotional engagement.
Even so, the production is fluid and stimulating, if not always musically then intellectually and visually, with Sonya Berlovitz's dreamily fantastic costumes creating slashes of color against Serrand's appropriately blank, boxy set. The sisters Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden, memorable in Jeune Lune's "Carmen" a couple of seasons back, make equally strong impressions here as the vivacious Charlotte and the betrayed Elvire, respectively, and Bradley Greenwald's Leporello is both comic and charismatic.
Most astonishing and memorable, though, is Epp's multidimensional Sganarelle. Nervy, anxious, hyperactive but paralyzed by superstitious dread, Epp's Sganarelle is a comic marvel - amusingly neurotic in the Woody Allen mold, hilariously loose-limbed a la Buster Keaton, but endearingly more human than either.
Don Juan and Don Giovanni may see themselves as heroes, engaged in an epic existential quest; Sganarelle is just a regular guy trying to get by. And that's the truly epic quest that Moliere and Mozart, if they could see where it's taken us since their time, would recognize with an ageless smile.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.