‘Doctor Faustus’ at Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program

A steampunk staging of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus without any spoken or signed language? Just movement and mime and lighting and scenic effects? Sounds crazy, right? Well, depending on the audience member, it may not sound like much at all—this being a production of the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program—or it might include (as it did for me) an equivalently crazy sound design.

Faustus (John Cartwright II), Mephistopheles (Seth Washington), and Bruno (Ty Wilding). Photo by Tara Lynn Lanning.
Faustus (John Cartwright II), Mephistopheles (Seth Washington), and Bruno (Ty Wilding). Photo by Tara Lynn Lanning.

Crazy as in fun to watch (and hear or not). Crazy as in non-stop eye-popping appeal. Crazy as in a fascinating burst of theatrical originality and devilishly fun invention.

The prime movers of this absorbing spectacle are Gallaudet grads James Caverly and Brian Suchite. Jumping off from Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus—a fraught religious allegory for religiously overwrought  times—Caverly and Suchite have found in steampunk an apt way to depict the high hokiness of the 1594 narrative using a hip and edgy contemporary esthetic.

Really, who today can get hot ‘n’ bothered about a career academic who makes a whack deal with the devil that gives him quack magical powers? Nowadays so many one-percenter titans are in bed with Beelzebub—having struck far more disastrous and dangerous bargains—that the dear Doctor Faustus’s ancient drama seems quaintly beside the point. We might indeed go ho-hum. Except that Caverly and Suchite have cleverly animated the classic text approximately along lines that Walt Disney employed with orchestral masterpieces in Fantasia.

In this endeavor they are aided and abetted by the stage-magic arts of Scenic Designer Ethan Sinnot (whose handsome set is a sinister clockwork gearbox), Light Designer Jason Arnold (whose gazillion light cues blaze and amaze), Costume Designer Elizabeth Ennis (who can dress a mean android Mephistopheles, or whoever the devil else happens onstage), Sound Designer DJ Nicar (whose steampunk hooks rock and rule), and Projection Designer Robert Hayes (who at one point elevates the entire stage and makes it fly, using but aerial motion photography).

A magnificent Lucifer puppet intermittently commands the stage. Designed by Eric Brooks as a puzzlework of illuminated pieces that actors assemble into an apparition before our eyes, it puts on a gosh-wow show all its own. Samantha Smith is credited with props, and in a witty touch, Faustus unleashes his magical and telekinetic powers by touching a  keypad strapped on his arm, whereupon special effects and mayhem ensue.

John Cartwright II as Faustus, when not being tossed and upturned by the epic demands on his character (the role is a real workout), stands solidly at the center of an agile and energetic ensemble: Dominique Flagg, Derek Frank, Kala Granger, Page Hawkins, Casey Johnson-Pasqua, Yader Martinez, Neil Matthews, John Roberts, Amber Savard, Michael Schmitz, Duke Smith, Aria Warrick, Seth Washington, Caldonina Wilding, and Tyrel Wilding.  Except for Washington as Mephistopheles and Roberts as Persian King Darius, all play multiple roles.

 Faustus (John Cartwright II) and Lucifer (Puppet design by Lucifer puppet design by Eric Brooks). Photo by Tara Lynn Lanning.
Faustus (John Cartwright II) and Lucifer (Lucifer puppet design by Eric Brooks). Photo by Tara Lynn Lanning.

Not that I could tell who was who, or even follow the story. A perhaps too cursory read of a couple synopses on line beforehand (there’s one in the program too) did not persist in memory sufficiently well enough to clue me. But I am not certain that following the plot of this show is what matters. It certainly didn’t for me. I quite enjoyed following how the plot had inspired the Doctor Faustus creators. And in that respect, I was never lost and I always transported.

Running Time: About one hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.

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Doctor Faustus presented by the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program plays through April 26, 2015 at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.