Thursday, March 28, 2019

Faust 2.0

Last night I saw the Mabou Mines production of Faust 2.0 at 122 Community Center, formerly known as P.S. 122.

P.S. 122 first became a performance space in 1980, taking over the former home of Public School 122. It was always a dirty, dingy building where you could see magnificent theatre. I remember catching a great production of Bertolt Brecht's Saint Joan of the Stockyards there with a huge cast of young, fully committed actors.

A few years ago, the whole building was shut down to be extensively remodeled. Last night, I walked into the box office, which is now around the side of the building and fully handicapped accessible, rather than up the steep steps I remembered from before the renovation. The place was so... clean! Not a speck of dust or dirt to be seen.

The second part of Goethe's Faust is a notoriously difficult text, but this adaptation by Matthew Maguire ambitiously tries to pack as much of it into a brief time span as it can. The first scenes in the show are actually from the first part of Faust, where Mephistopheles makes a bet with God and then forms his pact with the melancholy Doctor Faust.

In the traditional version of the story, as told by Christopher Marlowe, Faust is given unlimited knowledge and power for 24 years, after which time he must surrender his body and soul to the devil. Goethe changes the bargain to Faust agreeing to give himself up if he ever lies down in inaction. As he says in the David Luke translation:

               If ever to the moment I shall say:
               Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
               Then you may forge your chains to bind me,
               Then I will put my life behind me,
               Then let them hear my death-knell toll,
               Then from your labours you'll be free,
               The clock may stop, the clock-hands fall,
               And time come to an end for me!

In German, the phrase that is supposed to bring about Faust's damnation is "Verweile doch, du bist so schön!" Literally it means "Stay there! You are so beautiful!" Maguire renders this as something like, "Stop, linger there a while." It might not be the most exact translation, but it captures the spirit, and is better than Walter Kaufmann's overly poetic "Abide, you are so fair" which has become something of a standard version.

After setting up the situation, Faust 2.0 launches into the second part of Goethe's massive dramatic poem. The first act of Faust Part Two deals with Faust and the Emperor, who is of course the Holy Roman Emperor of a Christian Europe, but in the Mabou Mines production, director Sharon Ann Fogarty portrays him as a classical ruler of the Roman Empire. He is played campily by Greg Mehrten, who appears on video screen. Most of the cast, in fact, appears only on screen, lending the production an air of artificiality that corresponds with the self-consciousness of the second part of Goethe's epic drama.

Faust 2.0 basically skips over the second act of Goethe, eliminating the Homunculus and the classically inspired Walpurgisnacht. Instead, we go to the magnificent third act where Faust brings back Helen of Troy, played here by Angelina Impellizzeri. She and Faust have a son, Euphorion, played by 7th grader Oliver Medlin. Goethe probably meant Euphorion to be based upon Lord Byron, whose youthful spirit flamed out in an early death, and the boy's destruction weighs heavily on his parents. Helen sinks down into Hades, and Faust (played rather feelingly in this moment by Benton Greene) becomes distraught.

After the death of his son, Faust turns to war, aiding the emperor in a battle against his rival, and then in the final act to attempting to improve the world by driving back the sea. At last achieving something he deems worth doing, Faust utters the forbidden phrase and dies. Paul Kandel, who plays Mephistopheles, is wonderful as he gloats over the fallen Faust, but he doesn't have the last laugh, as readers of Goethe know.

It isn't every day you get to see a production of Faust Part Two, so if you're interested in this modern reimagining, be sure to get your tickets.