Full disclosure: If your only exposure to the classics was Shakespeare in high school, then be ready to get out there and see what else there is. There’s much to be found from the period that’s equally good, but a lighthearted romp this is not. With Doctor Faustus, Brave Spirits Theatre (one of the area’s prominent small companies focusing on classical work) tackles one of the most popular and historically successful Elizabethan tragedies.
Written by Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe between 1588 and 1593, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is generally considered to be the first dramatization of the German legend of John Faust, a bored, languishing, and dissatisfied academic who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge, wealth, and all worldly pleasures. The story first appeared in the mid-1500s and was controversial due to its dealings with necromancy (raising of the dead), witchcraft, debate over the true existences of Heaven and Hell, and Faust’s direct interactions with demons. For some context around Marlowe, contrary to long-held opinion by many, he and Shakespeare were not rivals – they often co-authored plays together (many of which are attributed entirely to Shakespeare), borrowed ideas, and shared several of the same company of actors before Marlowe, aged 29, was murdered in a tavern in Kent under unknown circumstances in 1593. With Doctor Faustus, though, Marlowe goes where Shakespeare did not.
Doctor Faustus at its core is a cautionary tale about the consequences when the thirst for power becomes too great. Brave Spirits’ production, directed by Paul Reisman, begs us to view the play through a modern lens, and then change the rules. The company smartly accomplishes this by partially re-gendering the play. Faustus, now Joan Faustus (Charlene V. Smith), is a lone woman academic at Wittenberg University, expertly holding her own among her male counterparts. Mephistophilis (Hollis Evey), the servant of Lucifer whom Faustus summons to work as her own servant in exchange for her soul, is also re-gendered as female. A stellar ensemble cast of seven play all the remaining multiple tracks to great effect.
Brave Spirits is known for making great use of minimal sets in intimate playing spaces while still presenting full-scale, moving productions, and Faustus is no different. The seating in the Lab at Convergence is arranged for this production in an intimate three-quarter thrust, with only three to four adaptable set pieces making transitions seamless, and with this arrangement allowing for fantastic use of any asides to the audience. There are many, and it’s nearly impossible not to feel like you’re being pulled into the story. The rest depends on the excellent acting, Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s beautiful lighting, the sound effects, and your imagination.
In keeping with the themes of angels vs. demons and good vs. evil, and to amplify the idea of necromancy and magic truly exists in the world of the play, the ensemble cast sometimes wears black to disappear into the set as disembodied spirits. They also do some incredible slight of hand and slapstick, both with props and with each other. Smith as Faustus and Evey as Mephistophilis have some fantastic magic tricks too, all aided by Mark Phillips as Magic Consultant, leading to some stunning visuals. Director Paul Reisman’s (of Faction of Fools) Commedia dell’arte influence is also evident in the carriages and acting of the ensemble cast. There are standout moments from Ian Blackwell Rogers and Jack Novak as two fools who fall into awkward circumstances while trying to learn a little necromancy of their own, thanks to Faustus, as well as fantastic performances from Katie Culligan as Faustus’ servant, Wagner, and from Valerie Adams Rigsbee.
Overall, it’s a striking story, presented beautifully. Re-gendering the two lead characters does little to change the story, though viewing Faustus as a woman forces you to look even more critically at a world already rigged against women, and particularly against women who have achieved any measure of success. Charlene V. Smith cuts a striking figure as the doctor, desperate to change her circumstances and yet prevented from doing so with any sort of autonomy. New York actress Hollis Evey came off a bit too deadpan and monotonous as the clever and long-suffering Mephistophilis; perhaps this was a deliberate choice, given who the character is, but I felt it read as bored. Still, she and Smith make an admirable pair and play well off each other, hopping around the world, meeting emperors and wreaking havoc.
The most noticeable change with a woman Faustus – and this, I think, was the true intention of the re-gendering – comes toward the climax, when Faustus begins to regret her deal with Lucifer. When she becomes overconfident and is set upon by a group of townsmen drunk on (weak) revenge, it feels like a setup for gang rape. It’s uncomfortably relevant and a refreshing and necessary commentary, particularly in light of the Harvey Weinstein news coming out of Hollywood over the past month (which is entirely coincidental). It’s a difficult message: if Faustus in the original text was already struggling to navigate a god-fearing world rigged against knowledge and pleasure, imagine how much harder it is for a woman. Especially a single woman who’s smart. The company of Brave Spirits should be commended for an excellent production that hits all the right notes.
Featuring: Charlene V. Smith, Hollis Evey, Katie Culligan, Jack Novack, Ian Blackwell Rodgers, Rachel Hynes, Lisa Hill-Corley, Valerie Adams Rigsbee, and Hilary Kelly. Set design by Leila Spolter. Lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke with sound design by Paul Reisman.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 10-minute intermission.