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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Dartmouth Actors Present Play Set In Aftermath Of WWI Which Still Resonates Today

Student actors from Dartmouth College are performing 'Don Juan Comes Back From The War' at the Hopkins Center through this weekend. Theater professor and director Peter Hackett joined VPR to talk about how this play, written after World War I, is still relevant today.

The play written by Odon von Horvath depicts a post-apocalyptic, post-war landscape in which most of the men are gone or dead and the women are taking on more empowered roles. How far-fetched was this at the time?

"There were so many casualties during the first World War that literally women began taking over men's roles in a  lot of areas... but probably the biggest impact was that women had been raised to expect to get married, have children, have families and all of the sudden, husbands, brothers, fiances had gone to war and didn't come back... One of the exciting things about doing this play -- particularly with the students -- was that it gave us the opportunity to go back and research post-World War I fact, the first couple of lines in the play are, 'The war is over and we lost.'

"The cast consists of one man, Don Juan, who comes back from the war, in fact the play begins on Armistice Day...and the entire rest of the cast are women. There are 11 women who play about 39 different parts so the play reflects that as well as many other issues of the real catastrophe that was the First World War.

"A lot of the history that followed the First World War, including the Second World War and even what we are dealing with today in the Middle East has to do with the aftermath of World War I--the lines that were drawn as countries were broken up and rebuilt and maps were redrawn. So, in a sense you can trace some of the problems that we're having in Syria, in Iraq, in Iran going all the way back to the decisions that were made immediately following the First World War. So, it's terribly terribly relevant, I believe."

As a director, do you normally put so much research into the background and setting of a play?

"I think the most important thing about actors is their ability to empathize with the characters they are playing and you can't do that if you don't really understand the world that they are in. So, it's absolutely critical that you spend time talking about what these people are really going through ... in order for them to create effective performances."

What's the pace of the play like with 11 actors playing 39 roles?

"That's the challenge. It's ... three acts but basically it's broken down into ... 24 snapshots. The play should move that way; it should feel like you're looking through an album... of 24 pictures. It's very exciting because it does create a very, very fast pace ... It's like an amusement park ride: You just can't get off once it starts."

Any chances that you've made or challenges the student-actors have faced since opening weekend?

"I haven't made any changes and nothing is really keeping me up at night about the production but that's because it has been very gratifying to see the journey the students have made, the young actors have made in embracing this material...they really do empathize. Even though the experience is very far from their own, they have found a way to enter this play and believe in these circumstances and give very, very exciting, very moving, very touching performances."

'Don Juan Comes Back From The War' is at Hopkins Center's Moore Theater at Dartmouth College through this weekend. Find details here.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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