Doctor Faustus

Michael Ooms as Doctor Faustus; photo from www.classicalactorsensemble.org

Michael Ooms as Doctor Faustus; photo from http://www.classicalactorsensemble.org

By LIZ BYRON. One of the first things most sources say about Christopher Marlowe is that he was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. This, of course, instantly sets up a comparison between the two, with Shakespeare frequently coming out on top. However, as far as the Classical Actors Ensemble‘s fall repertory goes, it’s Marlowe who’s the winner; their production of Doctor Faustus (Marlowe) is by far superior to their take on The Tempest (Shakespeare). That’s a whole other story, though – let’s talk about Faustus.

The plot is pretty simple: multiple-PhD holder John Faustus is frustrated because he’s pretty much learned all there is to learn in the world, and he wants more. So, he summons a demon, Mephistopheles, and sells his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of Mephistopheles’ service and knowledge about the universe. After two and a half decades of unlimited knowledge and power, Faustus has to face the music when Lucifer comes for his soul.

The script raises some interesting questions, and has been the source of some pretty intense religious debates, most notably around predestination. Is Faustus doomed the moment he signs his contract with Lucifer? Mephistopheles keeps telling Faustus that there’s no turning back, but a good angel keeps appearing to him and begging him to repent. On the eve of his death, Faustus finally tries to repent, only to be told it is too late. Was it always too late, and if not, where was the “point of no return”? Could he have escaped damnation, or was he always going to hell no matter what? And does the blame for all of this lie squarely on Faustus’ shoulders for allowing himself to be tempted, or can Lucifer be blamed for being, well, evil? These debates were particularly timely at the time the play was written, as Calvinism (a key aspect of which is a belief in predestination) was then on the rise. While this debate certainly hasn’t been resolved, it isn’t as hotly contended – at least, outside of the church – which makes the play feel a little less relevant.

Director Joseph Papke has a strong cast to work with, particularly in leading man Michael Ooms as the titular Faustus. I’ve been impressed by Ooms before, and my high expectations were easily met. However, even his commanding performance could not help the play from feeling a bit uneven. In the beginning, Faustus is presented as a slightly manic, awkward, ambitious academic who maybe hasn’t thought out the consequences of his actions fully; he’s too bent on getting his questions answered. As time passes, though, he becomes wrapped up in his powers; his ambitions of understanding everything slip away and he spends his time and abilities playing practical jokes and conjuring mirages. But what isn’t clear is why, or what the years have done to his personality. When he finally considers repenting, it isn’t obvious whether he is really experiencing any moral dilemma or is just worried about dying. He’s mostly just frantic, which doesn’t convey any deeper motivation. In fact, the whole show feels uneven; a fast-paced first half is full of wit and laughs, while the second half feels a little lost. This may just be the nature of the play, though, which seems to go from philosophical and somewhat light, to a pretty heavy-handed moral lesson.

A particularly interesting directorial choice was to have Arthur Moss portray the demon Mephisopheles in a manner reminiscent of a TV evangelist. Very interesting. It caused a few laughs at the beginning, but for me at least, was a little troubling (which is perhaps the goal) – if Faustus’ decision to sign his bargain with Lucifer is influenced by Mephistopheles, as surely it is, then what does it say about God and the Devil if their spokespeople sound the same? See? Troubling.

As is this company’s tradition, the breaks between scenes and acts are filled with (relatively contemporary) musical performances by the ensemble. It’s odd if you’re not used to it, but not unpleasant. However, at least on opening night, the sound was uneven and way too loud at times – even yelling in my partner’s ear, I couldn’t make myself heard and had to go out to the lobby to ask, “do you want to go out to the lobby to get some air?” Which, by the way, we did, because the theatre was incredibly warm and stuffy. However, as the temperature has dropped, I suspect this is no longer a problem.

There were a few flubbed lines, but not more than I would expect on an opening night. The set was relatively simple, as were the costumes (not complaining here – better unremarkable than remarkable in the bad way), but the Good Angel/Bad Angel puppets by Chava Curland were beautiful and attention-grabbing. It wasn’t obvious to me why the Angels were puppets while the demon and devil were human, for surely they are all four of them non-human, but it added some visual interest to an otherwise pretty simple production without being distracting, so it seemed like a good decision.

All in all, Doctor Faustus feels a little outdated and heavy-handed, and this is a pretty no-frills production, but I do recommend it for its strong acting. And if you are a Shakespeare fan, take the opportunity to see a play by Marlowe for comparison’s sake.

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe is presented by Classical Actors Ensemble in repertory with The Tempest. The show runs October 9-November 1, 2015 at the Minneapolist Theatre Garage, 711 W Franklin Ave, Minneapolis. Tickets $20-30 at http://www.classicalactorsensemble.org/ or at the door. Pay-what-you-can shows and ASL interpretation available on certain nights.

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