Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Faustus Revised

Christopher Marlowe's masterpiece Doctor Faustus comes to us in two texts. The "A" Text, published in 1604, is probably closer to what Marlowe actually wrote, while the "B" Text, published in 1616, seems to incorporate additions made by Samuel Rowley and William Birde.

Add to this the "C" Text, a new adaptation by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader that started previews last night at Classic Stage Company. Bridel and Belgrader use elements from both the A and B Texts, but they also add in some of their own material, along with ad libbed clowning by some of the comical character. The result is... well... magical.

The role of Faustus is not an easy one, but Chris Noth is one of the best actors in the role I've ever seen. He tries to walk a tightrope between humanizing Faustus and portraying him as a creature in a parable. The fact is, he's both. (That's how Marlowe writes him.) We might take issue with Noth erring too much to one side or the other from time to time, but that can't be helped in such a rich, multi-layered play.

Zach Grenier is probably the most interesting Mephistopheles I've ever seen. His deadpan delivery from the moment he's summoned from Hell helps bring the audience into the story. Grenier makes it clear this is not your father's Faustus. However, his modern-sounding delivery of Marlowe's words helps the play seem relevant and alive. Grenier's Mephistopheles, like a microcosm of the adaptation as a whole, gets closer to the spirit of the play by taking liberties with it.

One of the challenges Doctor Faustus presents in production is that in addition to the serious streak in the play, there are so many comic scenes. Richard Burton's 1967 film of the play simply extracted the comedy, making the story one long, grueling slog towards damnation. The comic scenes differ greatly in the A and B Texts, but are certainly there in both, which seems to indicate Marlowe and his contemporaries thought they were necessary to the action.

CSC, instead of falling into the trap of ignoring the comic scenes, or trying to perform all of them, whether from the A or B Text, comes up with a different solution. The adaptation re-imagines these scenes for a modern audience, giving the comic performers license to play with the scenarios from the printed texts, but encouraging them to improvise and use members of the audience. When Robin dreams of charms that might make a village maiden dance naked before him, he attempts to use his magic on an unfortunate woman picked from the crowd.

Oh yes, prepare for audience participation! Just as the players in Marlowe's day interacted with the audience, the cast of CSC's production engage directly with those who come to see the show. At certain key moments, the house lights even come up, reminding us that spectators are a part of this story as much as the actors. We become part of a tale of damnation, making us wonder on which side of the divine comedy we might fall.

At the end of the play, Walker Jones (who also wonderfully plays the character of Wagner) recites lines from the epilogue that appears in the A Text:

     Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
     Whose fiendish fortune may exhort the wise
     Only to wonder at unlawful things,
     Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
     To practice more than heavenly power permits.

Enticed by the action of the play, have we only wondered at the dark powers on stage, or are we implicated in the blasphemies of Faustus? Bridel and Belgrader's adaptation makes Faustus's role as performer explicit, as well as our own roles as spectators. It leaves ambiguous, however, whether those spectators are there to learn a lesson, or--like Faustus before the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins--be welcomed into Hell.