A political rival once said of the famed French foreign minister, Talleyrand, that he “would sell his soul for money and he would be right, for he would be exchanging dung for gold.” And it is this observation which is at the bottom of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and also of all the deliberate evil in the world.
Really, why would anybody exchange an eternity of suffering for a few years of the good life? Of course, one might find the whole idea of Heaven and Hell to be implausible, but if so, the promise to provide untold riches would be equally so. Perhaps Faustus (Charlene V. Smith, in Brave Spirits’ careful production) believes that Hell is only a minor vexation, say, like Detroit, but with no hockey team. After all, the principal complaint Mephistopheles (Hollis Evey), the devil who comes to negotiate with Faustus, has about Hell is that she is now separated from God. For Faustus, who shows little familiarity with, or enthusiasm for, the Deity that might not have been a problem. But that Faustus’ reasons, and inner life, are obscure to us is the principal drawback of Marlowe’s play and, I’m sorry to say, Brave Spirits’ production.
At the play’s outset Faustus, already a doctor and a recognized scholar, considers and rejects philosophy, medicine and theology as appropriate fields of study and instead embraces necromancy, the study of magic effects achieved through supplication to Satan. This is, of course, not only a rejection of God but also a rejection of science, in that its premise is that the world is not controllable through the manipulation of observable forces but is instead in the hands of powerful creatures who appear to us only when we beg them to and serve our purposes only if we serve theirs.
Faustus dreams of achieving untold wealth and power through Satanic assistance, but when Mephistopheles answers her summons, Faustus’ requirements are relatively modest. She questions her sulphurous visitor about the nature of Heaven, Hell and the universe at large, all of which Mephistopheles requites in detail. She acquires magical powers, which she uses essentially to give the Pope (Rachel Hynes) a wedgie. This is an amusing scene, as are scenes in which she and Mephistopheles deal with some bumptious rustics (Ian Blackwell Rogers, Jack Novak, Lisa Hill-Corley, Rachel Hynes and Hilary Kelly) by freezing them and making some of them into various animals. Faustus also uses her powers to regrow body parts after they have been hacked off, make her enemies (Katie Culligan, Hill-Corley and Valerie Adams Rigsbee) grow antlers, make the spirits of Alexander the Great (Rogers), Alexander’s paramour (Novak), and Helen of Troy (Evey) appear, and receive the seven deadly sins (Culligan, Hill-Corley, Hynes, Kelly and Rigsbee), in a scene which perhaps goes on too long.
Brave Spirits is diligent in achieving these effects, and is in the most part successful. This is not David Copperfield-style magic, but it is sufficient to move the story along, if you are of a mind to suspend disbelief, as you should be. (Mark Phillips serves as magic consultant). Other technical elements — the lighting (Jason Aufdem-Brinke) and sound (director Paul Reisman) chime in at the proper moments, deepening suspense without overdoing it, and Kristina Martin’s costumes subtly upgrade as Faustus becomes more important. There is some wonderful work by the ensemble, particularly in a scene where Faustus and Mephistopheles turn invisible and goose a bunch of clerics who are busy cursing their enemies. There are some breakout individual performances, particularly Hynes as history’s most snooty Pope and also as the amiable Emperor Charles V, and Rogers serving as an improbably self-important rustic and also as the King devil, Lucifer, who here appears to be as slick and unctuous as a game-show host.
closes November 11, 2017
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But where the production falls short is in supplying a plausible motivation for Faustus. Smith as Faustus embraces necromancy joyously, and then has doubts; she throws herself enthusiastically into her role as Magician-in-Chief for the Crowns of Europe; and then despairs as her final hour approaches, but it seems that in each instance Smith is playing different people, and there is no through line uniting them. Marlowe’s text provides little help; to make Doctor Faustus work its full effect, the artists must conceive a unified personality which embraces all the contradictory elements Marlowe gave Faustus. At least on press night, Brave Spirits did not achieve that requirement.
I’m also troubled by director Reisman’s decision to give Mephistopheles such a flat affect. This subordinate devil can be ironic, or rageful, or cheery and witty, as Rogers’ Lucifer is. But Evey’s Mephistopheles is casual and relaxed to the point of indifference. She shows passion only at two points — when she speaks of her separation from God, and at the end, when she shows her true colors (Evey is very effective at both points). To have her be as detached as Evey plays her necessarily adds an issue to all but the blindest Faustus: is Mephistopheles her friend or foe? In shows as separated from the modern imagination as Doctor Faustus is, additional complications do not serve the production.
One final note. As you may have noticed, most roles are played by women. In some instances, the company has changed the gender of the character; in others, women are playing men’s roles. Although I am not an enthusiast of cross-gender casting, it works here. Dr. Joan Faustus makes perfect sense; just as we now recognize that women are the equal of men in intelligence, accomplishment, persistence of vision, and all other virtues, so it makes sense that women are the equal of men in cupidity, weakness, self-indulgence and dozens of other vices. Where women play the role of men in this production, the sexuality of the characters is secondary; although, for example, Popes are (by Church law) men only, there is nothing that Pope Adrian does in this play that might not be done by a woman. I noted the unconventional casting at the beginning, and forgot about it five minutes into the play. You will too.
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, directed by Paul Reisman, who is also the sound designer . Featuring Charlene V. Smoth, Katie Culligan, Ian Blackwell Rogers, Jack Novak, Rachel Hynes, Hillary Kelly, Lisa Hill-Corley, Valerie Adams Rigsbee, and Hollis Evey . Costume design by Kristina Martin . Set design by Leila Spolter . Lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Magic consultant Mark Phillips . Graphic designer Jessica Aimone . Publicity photography Justin Schneider . Production photography Claire Kimball, who is also the dramaturg. Burton Rowley is the stage manager. Produced by Brave Spirits Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.