About midway through the first act I found myself distracted by the incessant, insistent sound of handbag-rustling from adjacent seats, and by backstage hubbub in the form of distant doors slamming and props being shunted from place to place. At first I was annoyed at the discourtesy towards those onstage. Then I realized that if you can’t make the willing damnation of one’s eternal soul resound louder than the twitchings and fussings of a few old ladies, something has gone very wrong.
This production by Classic Stage Company is a new adaptation by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader of Christopher Marlowe’s classic tale of a man consumed by his own appetite for greatness. Doctor Faustus, a renowned scholar, despairs at the opening of the play that he has already conquered every field of knowledge and nothing new remains to him; there is no vehicle through which he can make his eternal mark on the world and be remembered forever as the greatest man who ever lived. It’s difficult to elicit sympathy for such a hubristic anti-hero and Chris Noth, playing the titular character, doesn’t even seem to be trying. His performance feels as if Noth finds the whole thing stale and the questions in the text out of fashion. This is unfortunate because Marlowe’s text offers so many opportunities to humanize Faustus. While the overt religious themes in the play may no longer resonate with secular urban audiences, surely the questions about how to lead a worthwhile life and how to measure one’s worth in humanity’s search for meaning are still urgent.
Faustus decides to make his mark by taking up the evil path of sorcery and magic, pledging his eternal soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for limitless power during his life. Zach Grenier’s world-weary Mephistopheles, amused yet pitying at Faustus’s sophomoric arrogance, brings depth and richness to the production. It is Mephistopheles who, like an indulgent old teacher faced with an intransigent student, helps us to understand what Faustus has given up for his merely mortal pleasures. Grenier’s Mephistopheles has true power, not merely the illusion of power he grants to Faustus.
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus doesn’t seek to confound one with complex plot twists: man makes pact with devil, man performs various fantastical spectacles with power granted by devil, man is damned when the devil comes for his due, as agreed. The majority of the play is taken up with demonstrating the wonders performed by Faustus and by his minions with the power of magic. The most poignant of these scenes has the two clowns Robin (Lucas Caleb Rooney) and Dick (Ken Cheeseman) explore loyalty, friendship, and betrayal. They begin humorously, all false mustaches and terrible lute-playing, but end tragically when Robin, drunk with power, performs an unforgivable and seemingly irreversible act. As they are merely clowns, in the next scene Dick returns to the stage unscathed. In the end Robin and Dick decide to give up this magic business and go back to grooming horses, having roundly learned their lesson. Not everyone who plays with fire gets burned, it seems.
Faustus, by contrast, never repents though he considers it often. One oddity I’ve always found in Marlowe’s text is that though Faustus applies plenty of cold reasoning to his conscious fall from grace, he never really has an argument for repentance. There is no clear reason why he should return to righteousness if he truly doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but the thought is always there: he seems constantly to be arguing himself back into sin. Perhaps this is a subtle way of indicating that Faustus, for all his swagger, has never truly deviated from his belief in righteousness. It is simply obvious to him that he should repent, no argument needed. At one point Mephistopheles is forced to call in the big guns and make Faustus toe the line: Lucifer (Jeffrey Binder) arrives in swaggering gangsterish fashion to remind Faustus of his pledge. Binder is electric on stage, suaveness undercut by a raw, frightening threat of violence. It seems a pity that this vitality isn’t more present in the rest of the play.
On one level Doctor Faustus is a spectacle, an opportunity to play with grand stage illusions. In some places this works very well: lighting designer Jason Lyons crafts some excellent atmospheric moments with the stars and planets. Mephistopheles’s giant demon-form is so deliciously scary it’s impossible to look away from. The dumb show of the seven deadly sins begins shakily but builds into something exciting. Other choices seemed odd, for example the Rococo panniered costume for Helen of Troy makes her look more like Marie Antoinnette.
Noth springs to life at last for the final speech in which Faustus laments that he was born with a soul at all and granted the choice between good and evil. How much better to be born a beast, which can take its earthly pleasures secure in the knowledge that after death its spirit will simply dissipate into the air without fear of eternal damnation.
All in all, some stunning work by the supporting cast and the production team. But without a solid performance from the principal character, the show lacks an animating vital force which would really give it a soul worth stealing.