note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Will Stackman
Area theatre groups have tried for years to make use of the vast floorspace under the dome at the Cyclorama. Many of us have "warstories" concerning events such a a Sufi pageant a quarter century ago where the stage was assembled from platforms salvaged from the rubble in the undeveloped basements below, covered with the remains of an inflatable building (white and comveniently washable), and lit by homemade instruments which had to be turned on and off as the show progressed around the area, by moving long extensions cords snaked back to the few outlets available. An attempt was made to control the echo by hanging cargo parachutes borrowed from the National Guard stationed at the old Watertown Arsenal. Suspending these required rock-climbing gear to reach the rim of the dome. Seating was achieved by borrowing a huge assortment of "oriental" rugs from everyone's apartment. And there was a large supply of buckets on hand to catch the drips should it rain.
Current users, such as the "pilgrim theatre research and performance collaborative" now performing their most recent effort, a composite script entitled "Faust2002", have it a good deal better. The sagging Ghibran "sculptural" chandelier, which was seldom more than half-lit and hung Damoclean over everything done below, has been replaced by an impressive black truss system, a trifle industrial, but quite versatile. There are curtains on tracks to surround the performance area, though not of sufficient acoustical density to help much. And the floor is no longer raw masonry. A lot can be done in such a space.
Pilgrim does. Under co-founder, Kim Mancuso, in its world premiere, "Faust2002", is at times infused with theatrical magic, even if multiple references to past versions may be lost on the average theatre goer. The evening starts as the five company members join the assembled audience waiting in a side lobby - a space roughly the size of the BCA's other theaters. They're costumed in white as rag-tag angels singing traditional Appalachian gospel tunes, including Bill Munroe's "What Will You Give (in exchange for your soul?)". The banjo player, Court Dorsey, turns out to be the ultimate fallen angel as he delivers an acrobatic prologue from a nearby two story scaffold topped with torches. As usual, the Devil has all the good tunes and the best lines, from a variety of sources.
The audience is then invited to take seats in real chairs along one side of the dome facing two scaffolding structures. The Tempter is rolled in on the third and eventually extinguishes the torches as we meet Faust I, played by Susan Robbins, She is shown following her father administering often-fatal medicines to the masses, symbolized by one actor wearing a double mask designated The Old Couple. Dr. Faust grows up and joins Chris Cowley's Wagner researching real cures but she seeks more - more secrets of life. Incantation ensues. Enter the Black Dog, as a shadow on one of two large white curtains which suggest a proscenium on either side of the sixty foot playing area. When Mephistopheles materializes - Dorsey in conventional black - he turns out to also play a mean blues keyboard.
This is experimental theatre where almost anything can be tried. Not only is the scaffolding rolled from place to place, but the actors perform on wheels of various sorts including a very surprising entrance for Lucifer. Lighting devised by Kathy Couch from the M.I.T. Drama Shop is colorful and direct, using high and low angles. Michael McLaughlin's sound design is continously interesting, incorporating live sound, sampling mixes, and selections ranging from modern electronica to Billy Bang, along with Dorsey's live performances. The acoustics of the Cyclorama make the actor's lines occasionally difficult to decipher, but the intent is always obvious, and there's always something to watch.
Elements derived from various previous versions of the Faust legend limit
Pilgrim's work to some extent. Co-founder Kermit Dunkelberg plays Faust II
- the characters emotional side - after the Tempter seals the bargain.
From then on both aspects - and two actors - hold the stage, as Faust meets Gretchen , played by Monica Gomi, and the old tale of death andredemption by faith proceeds. This aspect of the show never quite gels, but her ascent to Heaven, symbolized by two vast wings created by draping the white proscenium curtains in arcs over Crowley holding her in his arms, is an effective image. Later Cowley performs as an abstract Helen of Troy using a large white veil which is interesting but less effective. The addition of Marlowe's most famous text might have clarified things. There's more potential in Crowley's Wagner as well. At least the company didn't try to include Gounod in their mix, though there might be room for the Book of Job and Milton, or maybe Oppenheimer.
The show, after 8 parts, labeled as seven deadly scenes plus an interlude
(a possible lapse in editorial judgement) doesn't really come to an end.
The finale is a cell phone driven look at modern times which climaxes in a
reprise of Bill Munroe's plaintive query. Faust is neither saved or damned,
which for all of us at the beginning of the Thirds Millenium may be the real
question. Pilgrim Theatre has once again produced a unique show that leaves
a lasting impression. Since this collaborative keeps working on their
pieces, and will present this opus next at the Malta International Festival
of Performance in Poznan, Poland in June, perhaps as the work progresses to
Faust 2003 or 2004, things will become clearer, and probably more exciting.
A version of this review has been posted to www.AisleSay.com and should appear there sometime this week, if the gods of the Web are kind.
Will Stackman .