Faust is a feast on a roller-coaster ride, dizzying, exhilarating, and satisfying. Images fly out of nowhere and disappear in an instant. Synetic’s fabled coordination of movement is in full flower; actors move together with such speed and precision that telepathy is the only obvious explanation. The slick costuming (Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili) seems like skin, and sin; and the rich and luscious music – designed by Irakli Kavsadze and director Paata Tsikurishvili and composed by Konstantin Lordkipany and Bondo Gugely — is like an extra character.
It begins with a do-over of the Book of Job. God (Phillip Fletcher, spookily remote) and Mephistopheles (Dan Istrate, full of manic joy), wager over the soul of one Dr. Faust (Greg Marzullo), an intellectual fallen upon hard times. But God seems to have lost a step since the days of the Old Testament, and the Devil has clearly learned a trick or two. For starters, he now knows that pleasure is a more effective persuader than draught and boils. And this time, God has backed the wrong horse. This is a gamble that Mephistopheles is fated to win.
For it seems as though Faust, an elderly misfit in thick glasses and a bad robe, is prepared to give up his soul the moment the wager is made. “Philosophy, law, medicine,” he mutters to his only companion, a disembodied – but quite lively – head in a bell jar. “And worst of all, theology!” He throws the book, one of hundreds festooning his laboratory, across the room. “I know nothing of value.”
“In the beginning was the Word,” Faust says, recalling the opening of the Gospel of John, and then he has a better idea. “In the beginning was – power.” He has said the magic word: Mephistopheles ascends from a smoke-belching bathtub in the middle of the stage, and Faust’s life changes forever.
The story is familiar to anyone who has seen Goethe’s play staged, or even read the script: Faust desires the virginal maiden Gretchen (Irina Tsikurishvili); Mephistopheles (who has no power over so virtuous a woman) teaches him the art of seduction and Faust ruins her. When her brother (Andrew Zox) intervenes Faust murders him, and later Gretchen’s child, and Faust’s, is drowned. Faust, after drinking deeply of degradation, comes to realize the consequences of his joyride to hell. It is, however, too late; Faust, having given up his soul at the outset, now has no means by which he can resist Mephistopheles’ final collection.
The devil, though – you should pardon the pun – is in the details. Staged with Synetic’s incomparable theatricalism, this Faust is a riot of unforgettable images, each of them deeply rooted in the Christian symbology which informed Goethe. The God of Abraham commands by words (“Let there be light!”) but the devil rules by gestures – and, in this souped-up telling, by remote control. Thus during his unsatisfying service to God Faust loads up his room with books; when Mephistopheles takes over he perverts their use, snorting coke from the pages, withdrawing high-potency drinks from their bindings, and ultimately, burying Faust in them.
The infernal bathtub is a sort of reverse baptismal font, irreparably staining all who bathe in its waters. It is in the bathtub that Faust makes his high-speed transit – head-over-heels, legs flailing in the wind – to the special hell that Mephistopheles has designed for him. In the bathtub, Faust and Gretchen consummate their doomed union. In the bathtub, her brother dies, and their child is born and lives out the few pathetic minutes of his life.
Mephistopheles wins Faust’s soul by promising him limitless pleasure, and – at least in this – he is a man of his word. This is a swell hell, full of nubile and beautiful daemons, great music and hot action. Mephistopheles, using medical equipment not known to our science, transforms Faust into a young, virile, chiseled guy. Faust, having spent his life in the windy halls of the academy, now enters a land of all action and no talk, of fast-twitch reflexes where the flow of time is literally at his command.
“Let copulation thrive,” King Lear said to the blinded Gloucester, and Faust and Mephistopheles both drink deeply of this cup. Mephistopheles and Gretchen’s randy friend Martha (Anna Lane) run through the Kama Sutra at breakneck speed. When they are done the devil is exhausted but Martha is ready for more. Faust’s lust is of a darker variety. Having seduced and impregnated Gretchen and killed her brother, Faust abandons them for a daemon’s night out. In a sulfurous nightclub, Faust and a particularly lissome nymph gyrate wearing only shirts of blood. Not until then, engorged in gore, does Faust’s orgy of impulsivity end, and he come to know regret.
The audience, however, regrets nothing. Faust has more dialogue than the usual Synetic play, and the actors handle it well. In particular, Marzullo and the extraordinarily expressive Irina Tsikurishvili give rein to a wonderfully wide range of emotions in voice and body. Adapters Paata Tiskurishvili and Nathan Weinberger have given them the classic dialogue of Goethe’s time but have cleverly permitted Mephistopheles and his minions to speak in a contemporary idiom. Istrate, all sleek gestures and catlike grace, is a marvelous Prince of Darkness.
This production reminds us why Synetic is a regional treasure. There is nothing like it in New York. There is nothing like it anywhere – except here in Washington.
Faust will continue to play at the Rosslyn Spectrum through May 21, and will resume production at the Kennedy Center from June 1 through the 18th. Rosslyn shows are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $35 and may be obtained through the website (http://www.classika.org/Synetic) or by calling 703.824.8060. Kennedy Center performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7.30 and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $30 and may be purchased at www.kennedy-center.org. When you reach the website, click “Find a performance” and search under “Synetic”.”