Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Doctor Faustus"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi

"Doctor Faustus"

Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi


by Christopher Marlowe

directed by Michael F. Walker

Todd Hearon ….. Faustus
Jeffery Jones ….. Mephistopheles
Jason Beals
Scholar; Lucifer; Friar; Charles V
Erin Bell
Scholar; Devil; Envy; Friar; Paramour of Alexander
Edwin Beschler
Old Man
Ozzie Carnan, Jr
Devil; Beelzebub; Friar; Alexander the Great; Duke of Vanholt
Paula Carter
Chorus; Wagner; Lechery
Sheilagh Cruickshank
Evil Angel; Sloth; Duchess of Vanholt; Helen
Bill Doscher
Devil; Gluttony; Pope; Vintner
Wendy Lippe
Cornelia; Pride; Friar; Horse-Courser
Jeffrey Peterson
Valdes; Rafe; Covetousness; Friar; Knight; Devil
Steve Rotolo
Robin; Wrath; Cardinal of Lorraine
Eric Vogt
Good Angel; Attendant; Scholar

This has been a good year for some of Boston’s non-Equity theatres - I have seen the Ubiquity Stage stride forth with their WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and the Gold Dust Orphans grow by leaps and bounds with their CAMILLE, and now The Bridge Theatre Company reaches for the brass ring with its production of Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS. They may not grab it this time around, but they have stretched farther for it than I have seen them do in the past.

There are numerous versions of the Faustian legend - the medieval scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for greater knowledge - the most familiar being the Goethe version (German, in two parts) which in turn inspired the still-popular French opera by Charles Gounod (the American poet Randall Jarrell revised Goethe’s Part I - seek it out; it’s lovely). Marlowe’s version, supposedly the legend’s first dramatization, may come as a surprise to those looking for Gretchen, the maiden seduced and abandoned by Goethe’s Faust - Marlowe’s attention is on Faustus alone and his growing damnation. Aside from Faustus’ opening and closing monologues and his famous “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships” speech upon seeing Helen of Troy, Marlowe’s verse is simple and direct - but such directness only adds to the fascination of Faustus’ relationship with Mephistopheles and the disillusionment that comes from signing away one’s soul - Faustus seeks knowledge that can only come from Heaven; damned himself, all that Mephistopheles can do is parrot back facts Faustus already knows, continually distract him with fleshpots and material goods….and wait. In the end, the good doctor becomes little more than a bored magician, having long given up his thirst for knowledge in his search for mere sensation.

Director Michael F. Walker has trimmed Marlowe’s script, which doesn’t hurt in one spot (deleting the Benvolio-Martino-Frederick interlude) but puzzles in another - why did he remove the final scene where Faustus’ fellow scholars report finding his mangled limbs strewn about after demons carry him off to Hell? (This is, after all, a cautionary tale as well as a tragedy.) His production wanders along at an all-too-leisurely pace and grinds to a halt when his actors (in half light) pull black shower curtains about the stage to suggest scene changes, but he does have some nice touches - the Pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, a clever ensemble where the eyes don’t know where to look first; and Faustus’ descent to Hell, which starts off as hair-raising poetry: a bell rings, and two scurrying demons crisscross the stage behind Faustus’ back - and on comes Mephistopheles, like a ground bass, striding slowly and inevitably in and out among the curtains. But the poetry peters out: Faustus is simply dragged off like the daily laundry; I see Mephistopheles giving Faustus a sad, final look, then dismissing him with a wave of his hand - he has other souls to catch (well….that’s the kind of devil I would be). Mr. Walker’s piping in jazz music before the houselights dimmed led me to expect devils with cell phones and other modern touches; but his FAUSTUS is blessedly free of such indulgences. Emily Brandt and Rosemarie Ellis may clad the ensemble mostly in street clothes but, one exception aside, the actors play their parts with a gusto that I’m tempted to call pure Elizabethan.

That one exception is the Faustus - sadly, the Bridge’s own Todd Hearon disappoints in the role. This actor-director-writer has a wonderfully rich, if solemn, voice - ideal for Reader’s Theatre - but he rings hollow in terms of creating a character. (Nor does his Faustus age - not a hair.) Even in his most anguished moments, Mr. Hearon strolls about as if reciting Marlowe’s play to us, his students (as did the actor who played Lear last year for the Ubiquity Stage). There’s little here for Mephistopheles to claim - the ghost has already left this Faustus. Fortunately, thanks to Jeffrey Jones (Mephistopheles) and other members of the cast, Mr. Walker’s production does have a chance in hell.

In terms of technique, Mr. Jones is an impressive Mephistopheles: he has turned himself into a Thing - down to separating and bandaging his toes to suggest cloven hooves. I wouldn’t say Mr. Jones has an evil face, but he does know how to use his dark, saturnine looks to suggest the diabolical, with his eyes slyly glancing from side to side and his head forever bobbing and dipping in a cobra’s dance. And Mr. Jones possesses the fire that Mr. Hearon lacks, flaring up with a terrifying intensity whenever he senses his prey is slipping away from him. My one quibble with Mr. Jones’ performance is that he gives the game away all too quickly: Faustus requests that Mephistopheles appear to him in the benign guise of an old Franciscan friar, but Mr. Jones continues to crouch and glide in a sinister vein - thus, a stunning opportunity is lost: Mephistopheles revealing his true colors when Faustus’ contract runs out! Still, Mr. Jones was fun to watch - he’s a devil, all right; pity there’s no traces of a fallen angel as well. Now, if he and Mr. Hearon were to switch roles….?

Though their stage lives are all too brief, Lucifer and Beelzebub are also compelling fiends: the former has a stunning entrance - stepping out of the wings with a spotlight burnishing his bald pate - and Jason Beals plays Lucifer as a cold, smiling reptile (and nicely suggesting the arrogance that got him tossed out of Heaven). Mr. Walker gives Beelzebub’s lines to Lucifer as well, but Ozzie Carnan, Jr. - fresh from playing Peter in this summer’s PAN for Company One - rivets by silently turning his face into the very mask of Hell (or a rock star). Among the others, merry Steve Rotolo has the makings of an excellent period clown; with a crackerjack director and some self-restraint, Wendy Lippe could develop into a top-notch comedienne instead of continuing to mug and strike “hot” poses (she was Ubiquity’s ample Gonereil who made “nyah-nyah” faces behind Lear’s back); Bill Doscher makes an amusing Colonel Blimp of a Pope; her lines may be few, but cat-eyed Sheilagh Cruickshank bewitches with a cool, melodious voice (like the first fair days of October) and convincingly ranges from the Evil Angel to a thick-tongued Sloth to a ditzy Duchess (slapping her husband’s hand as he tries to snitch her grapes) to a patrician, fashion-plate Helen of Troy. Best of all: Edwin Beschler as the Old Man (a shrewd Mephistopheles would have hidden behind such a façade!). This white-haired, gentle-voiced actor was the one good thing in last year’s MACBETH at the Industrial Theatre (he was its Duncan), and he contributes another radiant portrait here, appearing in lamb’s white to sound the final warning bell before Faustus is damned forever (Mr. Walker was wise in keeping him under wraps to heighten the Old Man’s impact). Mr. Beschler’s readings may be quiet, but they are well-shaped and smack of the stage, not the classroom - has he any lightning in him?

In the past year or so, I have seen numerous Shakespeare productions - good, bad or indifferent - and very good productions of Marlowe’s EDWARD II (Pet Brick) and THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK (Emerson College), and now this good-enough DOCTOR FAUSTUS. I will continue to applaud those companies who seek out those in the Bard’s shadow - I say, anyone for Marlowe’s TAMBURLAINE? All the world may be a stage, but all the stage is not Shakespeare’s.

"Doctor Faustus" (23 August ­- 6 September)
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617)426-2787

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