By Tulis McCall
John Faustus (Chris Noth) has a problem. Nothing is good enough. Aristotle annoys him. Justinian is beneath him. The Bible is filled with hypocrisy. Medicine he has already conquered. The only study that is of interest is the black art of necromancy. Magic. And for power over that Doctor Faustus is willing to trade. In the current production of Doctor Faustus, now at Classic Stage Company, the guy who can make that particular deal happen is Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier). He is a being with a direct line to the Devil. He has looked on the face of God and been demoted along with Lucifer. Because of that, any place he hangs his hat is Hell.
Truth be told I don’t recall seeing a production of Faustus, but for some reason I do have a lingering image of a man in great agony and despair as he regards his unenviable fate. In this production, however, great emotion seems entirely absent.
This seems in part due to the script, adapted from Christopher Marlowe by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader, that feels like “Marlow-Lite”. There is no power or oompf. Faustus signs on the dotted line in blood, then wants out. Lucifer appears with a parade of the Seven Deadly Sins that appear not so deadly at all, and Faustus is nearly frothing at the mouth to take them on. There is a bit of audience interaction that is puzzling here.
Lucas Caleb Rooney as Robin and Ken Cheeseman as Dick present us with one hilarious scene that seems half ad-libbed (and very well), but it has little to do with what is going on.
Faustus begs for knowledge so that he may soar over the entire world. He uses it to tease the Pope for no good reason. As time passes Fautus acquires fame and is summoned by the rich and famous for cures and once in a lifetime wishes. Slowly he becomes exhausted by the world tours and disillusioned with what he thought would be his finest years. There are 4 of them that he lives out in a nanno-second or two.
At the end after a quick, and very awkward dalliance with a naked Helen of Troy, Faustus is consumed by the smoke of Hell and sent thither. Sadly, we don’t care about his demise because we never got the chance to care about him from the get go. Mr. Noth, although sincere in his efforts, never pries open his own rib cage to make us feel his achey breaky heart. Perhaps he is too accustomed to working on camera and has forgotten that for this to work on stage he must reach out and connect with us. Not the other way around.
Selling your soul is an iconic bargain that most of us, if we are honest, have considered at one time or another. I would sell my soul to have, or to get, or if I only could …. Each of us has said it. And this is the play that is supposed to grab us by the scruff of the neck and shake us silly. This is the play that is supposed to pull us back from the edge of a bottomless pit. This is the play that is supposed to make us shout from the rooftops that what we have and what we are is just fine, thank you very much. This production does no such thing.
On the contrary, as portrayed by Grenier, it is Mephistopheles who has a heartbeat. It is Mephistopheles who compels us.The result is that his Hell looks a lot better than any person,place or thing in this production. Beam me up, or as the case may be – down – Scotty. Mephistopheles, not John Faustus, is the m-a-n.
FAUSTUS – Adapted by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader from the play by Christopher Marlowe; directed by Mr. Belgrader; sets by Tony Straiges; costumes by Rita Ryack and Martin Schnellinger; lighting by Jason Lyons; music and sound by Fabian Obispo; production stage manager, Terri K. Kohler; movement specialist, Mr. Bridel; production supervisor, Production Core; production manager, Amber Mathis; general manager, John C. Hume. Presented by Classic Stage Company, Brian Kulick, artistic director; Jeff Griffin, managing director. At the Classic Stage Company, Manhattan, 212-352-3101, classicstage.org. Through July 12. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
WITH: Jeffrey Binder (Scholar/Evil Angel/Lucifer/Knight/Duke/Ensemble), Ken Cheeseman (Scholar/Dick/Ensemble), Zach Grenier (Mephistopheles), Carmen M. Herlihy (Valdes/Good Angel/Cardinal/Duchess/Ensemble), Walker Jones (Wagner/Ensemble), Marina Lazzaretto (Helen of Troy/Ensemble), Chris Noth (Doctor Faustus), Geoffrey Owens (Cornelius/Pope/Emperor/Old Man/Ensemble) and Lucas Caleb Rooney (Robin/Alexander the Great/Ensemble).