Audiences at Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq, written by Pulitzer-winning dramatist Paula Vogel and directed by the Wilma Theater's artistic director Blanka Zizka, will be seeing a version of the classic tale of an isolated soldier returning from battle, one that was first told by Tirso de Molina in the mid-1600s and again by Weimar-era playwright Ödön von Horváth.
This Don Juan (played by Keith J. Connallen) comes back to a vivid, time-shifting, dreamscape Philadelphia (imagined by set and light designers Matt Saunders and Thom Weaver) as a bewildered Marine, wandering the streets, pining for his vanished lover.
How he got there - how his story was written - was the result of an unusual two-year collaboration of playwright, director, and, at the beginning, people who had lived it: actual veterans.
Only after countless writing and listening sessions with men and women just back from (or still part of) the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, after forming an acting company before there was a script, after hours of primal theatrical exercises - only then did Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq emerge.
"As a director, I want to be in the midst of my actors, to understand their techniques so to have a new language I can use and so they understand problems that need to be solved," Zizka says after a recent rigorous session of vocal workouts and role-playing exercises. "I've gotten down on the floor a few times myself," she says with a laugh.
Her intent, and Vogel's, was to create a new way of making theater, an immersive experience that turns the process on its head.
"We are producing art in this country on a Model T Ford-factory model," Vogel says of theater's usual play-building assembly line. Sitting in the director's office overlooking the stage, she leans into Zizka as she speaks, anticipating her commentary.
Zizka obliges: "Writers write in isolation, actors are hired for a job at the last moment, and mostly they are typecast. Theater is an art form, but no art form can push forward if we don't invest time into development and experimentation. I want my theater to get away from norms and cliches and become unexpected, fresh, and surprising."
Vogel continues that thought by saying that if theater artists had the luxury of deciding every process differently, "as we are doing here," work and life would be filled with surprises. "Each time out, you'd say, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' And that's good."
For the two, the surprise party started in 2011 when Vogel held one of her renowned Playwriting Boot Camps in Philadelphia, in which Zizka took part - often uncomfortably. "English is not the language I truly write in," says the native Czech.
But Vogel found Zizka's writings as audacious as her taste in theater. "My head swivels when I hear a unique voice such as hers," the playwright says.
So not long after, she proposed something based on their mutual respect for each other's adventurousness as well as their shared love of Horváth (Zizka was considering his bracing Figaro Gets a Divorce for the Wilma).
It was an idea not just for a play, but for a process in which they would fully collaborate: research, workshops, selecting company members (nine in all), as one team. "The play would be my voice, but our vision," Vogel says, and it would be born from the process.
The true driving force behind this engine was the involvement of veterans in workshops where their spoken and written visions of hell on Earth were funneled into Don Juan.
"Sometimes I felt more like a scribe than a playwright," Vogel says of her immersion in the world of the just-returned and active-duty soldiers, a world that reflects what Zizka refers to as the "narcissism of Americans." In the character's early stages, Vogel's Don Juan exploits everything and everyone he encounters.
"However, he believes he only does what others want from him; in his narcissistic mind he is 'helping them,' lying to himself and his victims," Zizka says. "I thought a similar narcissism is what we experienced when this country went into war with Iraq, when the politicians lied to themselves and to the rest of the country."
Vogel found fertile ground in the military's painful attempt to shift attitudes about gender.
"There are women in combat, but we still have a 19th-century military, so we have this enormous collision of indoctrinating soldiers in a chain of command that involves a notion of gender and sex that no longer exists."
When they say that Don Juan comes back from Iraq, they are not talking about a single character, but all veterans, male or female, an archetype.
Combine such human beings, in all their paradoxical states, with a government that pretends nothing happened, and you have a rich story to tear into, which Vogel, Zizka, and the workshopping veterans did with relish. (On April 8, the Wilma will present an evening of nine short plays written by several of the veterans.)
While Zizka's presentation of Don Juan - her and Matt Saunders' external expression of what they believe it could feel like to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder - gave Vogel freedom to write "impossible sequences of scenes and move through spaces and times like in a dream," she sees that dreamy vision and the actors within it as vibrant, funny, and sexy.
"I'll use the term that Tony Kushner uses for such productions: a fantasia," she says, "a Peer Gynt-like journey of coming home that touches on all emotional and mental states of being."
Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq
Through April 20 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.