The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus
By Christopher Marlowe. Adapted by Kee-Yoon Nahm, Andrej Visky and Rachel Carpman. Directed by Visky. Scenes Design and Puppet Design by Claire De Liso. Costume Design by Haydee Zelideth. Lighting Design by Joey Moro. Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar. Projection Design by Rasean Davonte Johnson and Yana Biryukova. Puppet master: Elise Hebel. Cast: Niall Powderly (Doctor Faustus), Chalia La Tour (Gretchen), Josphine Stewart (Mephistopheles 1), Christopher Ross-Ewart (Mephistopheles 2) and Emily Reeder (Mephistopheles 3). Through Aug. 1 at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park St., New Haven.
I am of the firm belief that Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is the greatest play every written. It’s got humor, horror, suspense, drama, tragedy, pathos, wonderment and no-shit devil-raising incantations. It’s got Elizabethan verse and Germanic depth. It’s the first comprehensive English expression of one of the seminal stories of civilization: the selling of one’s soul to the Devil.
Most importantly from a theatrical standpoint, Doctor Faustus is open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation. The script doesn’t demand to be staged a certain way. No two productions are ever alike. The play’s pact with directors who are inspired by it can be as insidious and consuming as any of its devil-dealings.
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus gets read a lot, but doesn’t get staged nearly as often as it should. I personally think that it should be a rite of passage for all directors. It presents unique challenges. It demands that priorities be chosen regarding how technical, fantastical, emotional or comical any production must be. It exposes artists’ souls as readily as it disposes of its protagonist’s.
A lot of folks hold up a later version of the Faustus saga, Goethe’s, as poetry and drama of the highest order. I think that’s hogwash. Goethe is so florid and hi-falutin’, so self-important and pompous, that it’s deadly as live drama. The Marlowe Faustus however, can be direct, shocking, candid, riotously funny, rousing and awe-inspiring.
The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus at the Yale Summer Cabaret wisely uses undistilled Marlowe from the get-go. It throws out the introductory narrative scene and goes directly to the doctor (a tireless scholar of the highest academic sort, not a dithering humanist or out-of-touch alchemist as Goethe would have him; alchemy isn’t mentioned in the Marlowe version) in his library at the start of Scene One: “Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin.” Director Andrej Visky and his co-adaptors Kee-Yoon Nahm and Rachel Carpman start taking liberties with the text right away, which is natural with this particular script. They lighten up on the conjuring, eschewing most of the incantations used to summon Mephistopheles. They don’t introduce the Seven Deadly Sins. They interpolate the naive young love interest Gretchen, who’s not in Marlowe’s Doctor Faust but an essential character in Goethe’s Faust. (Here Gretchen, played by a chipper Chalia La Tour, is a fawning student smitten by Doctor Faustus’ wisdom and supposed integrity.) They keep Faustus, even when he is at his most powerful, vulnerable and full of self-doubt. While allowing for massive doses of time-shifting metaphysics and magic, they keep it real, grounded, down-to-earth. In this production, the concept that there are forces beyond our consciousness applies as much to secret societies, shadow governments and the vicissitudes of celebrities as it does to, you know, magic.
Everyone who’s ever staged Doctor Faustus is making their own statements about what constitutes fame, power, majesty and magic. This one is heavily concerned with control over one’s intellectual prowess and career choices. Selling one’s soul here means compromising one’s integrity, missing out on valuable growth experiences, failing to balance one’s life, not playing nicely with others, being an asshole. This production is a litany of the choices which challenge people on the cusp of their professional lives and otherwise are entering adulthood. That’s not really what Marlowe explores in his script, but it’s certainly a workable path through the play nonetheless. Visky, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama directing program this past spring, has a proven knack for mixing high emotions and realism with a sense of order and ritual. This Doctor Faustus (especially as embodied by the jittery yet solid and commanding Niall Powderly) is crisp and clear and flowing and present, not shrouded in clouds of magic and unknowing.
Marlowe’s original Tragical History of Doctor Faustus boasts a cast of dozens, including Sins, Magicians, Students, Clowns, Royalty and a chorus of “friars, devils and attendants.” This production makes do with one guy (the nicely plain-seeming blank-canvas Powderly, whose indignation and impatience grow organically throughout the play), three porcelain-smooth actors (Josephine Stewart, Christopher Ross-Ewart and Emily Reeder) collectively portraying his central enabler/tormentor Mephistopheles, plus the aforementioned Gretchen. There are the expected set-pieces about what someone would do if granted obscene amounts of power, translated to modern-world glories such as TED conferences. There are musings on abuses of such power, not to mention lost opportunities. There are regrets.
After a while, it all begins to feel like a long dorm-room conversation about career goals and romantic ideals. But Visky, Nahm and Carpman’s rewrites are true enough to the spirit of Marlowe. There’s some genuine, much welcome sensationalism here. Puppets and simple lighting effects are effectively used. Death and failure loom in every scene, yet there are constant sparks of comedy and conflict. There this Summer Cabaret troupe’s reshaping of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this season was unnecessarily dark and dense, this Doctor Faustus remembers to light the lights. While it doesn’t begin to touch on the sheer enormity and expansiveness of Marlowe’s full play, it ends up being a narrowly focused yet sharply, briskly staged realization of certain central themes of Doctor Faustus. That turns out to be more than enough for a challenging evening of intelligent drama in the basement of an old Yale building at 217 Park Street. This is a smart, honest production that makes bold choices but doesn’t lose track of what it wants Doctor Faustus to be about.
It makes me want to restate my opinion that every budding director should contemplate Doctor Faustus and make their own thing of it. That’s the wonder of a play about selling one’s soul—it makes those who stage such a play more honest and open in their endeavor, lest they be accused of selling out themselves.