Theater Reviews

Welcome to Hell: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Classic Stage Company

Laura Kolb, Ph.D.
(Baruch College)

Early in the Classic Stage Company’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Mephistopheles makes his first appearance: an enormous headless body lurching into the Doctor’s study. Cement-gray and streaked with rust or slime, the apparition’s flexible outward skin is studded with faces frozen in pain: the gape-mouthed, wide-eyed masks of the damned. It’s like something out of Max Ernst’s The Spanish Physician: a body made up of other bodies, a thing both living and dead. Seeing it, Faustus (Chris Noth) cries out, “I charge thee to return and change thy shape,/ Thou art too ugly to attend on me.” On a recent Sunday afternoon, the line elicited a ripple of nervous laughter from the theater audience—laughter that sharply increased when Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier) reentered, now an ordinary man in a brown coat. Considerably shorter than Noth’s stately Faustus, this more unassuming Mephistopheles fussily carried a little folding stool on which he proceeded to sit, forearms resting on legs, ready to have a chat.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Doctor Faustus famously intersperses high tragedy with low comedy. The choice to play the crucial moment of Mephistopheles’ entrance simultaneously for horror and laughs epitomizes CSC’s bold, intelligent, hyper-theatrical interpretation, which takes Faustus’s formal structure—the basic pattern of a serious scene followed by a parodic replay—and makes it the principle of each dramatic moment’s construction. As members of the audience, we find ourselves frequently laughing, and that laughter both emerges from and alleviates the nausea that comes from confronting irrevocable damnation. After all, that’s what Faustus asks us to do: to look for a couple of hours at someone who is, in a sense, both living and dead—to stare at the face of the damned.

It’s a good face. Noth’s wry, melancholy portrayal of the divine-turned-necromancer is effective, particularly in early scenes: asked to cut his arm in order to sign in blood the deed trading his soul for twenty-four years of life with Mephistopheles to serve him, he looks first repulsed, then, resolute, then, as he starts to write, amused. It’s as if the situation—writing out a formulaic, tidy, legal document, but for a soul—strikes him as an amusingly absurd bit of make-believe. When his blood congeals and Beelzebub unfreezes it with a sudden burst of flame, the cycle of emotions repeats itself. The theater is small enough, and the set (by Tony Straiges) is stark enough, that these flickering responses register clearly. For Noth’s Faustus, laughter obscures the horror that is, at the same time, the source of that laughter. What can you do but laugh, when you’re selling your soul to Lucifer, bleeding, and on fire?

The production’s emphasis on the comic potential of despair leads to a tight and fairly stunning show, at least for the first half. This is in large part due to the solid work of a talented cast. In particular, Zach Grenier as Mephistopheles, by turns affable and sardonic, exhibits impeccable timing. His back-and-forth with Faustus is a pleasure to watch. What can, on the page, feel like a mish-mash of motivations and desires becomes a tensely charged struggle, with Faustus perpetually turning towards serious topics and Mephistopheles drawing Faustus’ eyes—and mind—toward showy distractions.

The link between entertainment and damnation comes to a head in a crucial scene when Faustus, suddenly and strongly wanting to repent, strives to think on “God, that made the world.” Mephistopheles summons Lucifer (Jeffrey Binder), who, rather than punishing his errant disciple, summons up a pageant of the seven deadly sins to entertain him. They present themselves one-by-one and then join together in a song-and-dance routine. “Welcome to hell,” they sing, as the lights sink to a seductive pink-red glow. An analogy between sinfulness and theater, present in Marlowe, is underscored here. If Faustus sins, well, so do we, for simply going to the theater—for seeking out entertaining shows, and for giving ourselves over to that same restless desire for novelty, variety, glitter, and shine that drives Faustus to conjuring in the first place. Theater grabs our attention, arrests us, and takes us out of time. “Think on God” says the voice of Faustus’ Good Angel, his conscience. “Watch this funny (or beautiful, or disgusting, or bizarre) show!” responds Lucifer. Nowhere is this dynamic of distraction clearer than in the pageant of personified sins. Gluttony in particular proves fascinating. He enters delicately nibbling a donut, and ends with its yellowish creamy filling smeared over his face, glistening on his cheeks and dripping from his nose. The spectacle’s gross materiality is as compelling as it is repulsive; it’s hard to look away.

The parade of vices is the high point of what is perhaps the most striking feature of CSC’s Doctor Faustus: a commitment to implicating the audience not only in the play’s moral questions, but in its action. The production signals this commitment subtly at first. As Faustus considers and rejects various courses of study in his opening soliloquy—which is here beautifully delivered and brilliantly paced—the servant Wagner delivers translations of his master’s Latin words and phrases. Wagner’s assuming the role of mediator between the play and its audience isn’t breaking the fourth wall so much as smilingly pointing it out. Soon, however, we find ourselves unable to sit at a comfortable remove from the onstage action. In an early scene, Robin and his sidekick Dick (Lucas Caleb Rooney and Ken Cheeseman) try their hand at conjuring, hoping to make local maidens dance naked for them. To that end, Robin commands Dick to draw a woman from the audience (on this particular Sunday, the chosen audience member gamely helped Dick to remove her shoes and improvised a little dance with the duo). A few scenes later, summoning the seven sins, Lucifer locates the first one, Pride, in the audience, pointing to spectator after spectator as he “searches” for the vice. The other sins, members of the cast, address us directly: Wrath demands to know what we’re looking at as he stabs himself repeatedly; Envy turns his eyes imploringly from Gluttony’s donut to the audience, crying “Why him, and not me?”; covetousness darts up the aisles to steal theater programs and purses; Lust contorts herself inches from the front row. Only Sloth (the deliciously languorous Carmen M. Herlihy) speaks the words from Marlowe’s text: “I was begotten on a sunny bank…” All the others talk to us, walk among us, hail us as sinners and arousers of sin.

Doctor Faustus Classic Stage Company Cast List: Jeff Binder Ken Cheeseman Zach Grenier Carmen M. Herlihy Walker Jones Chris Noth Geoffrey Owens Lucas Caleb Rooney Production Credits: Andrei Belgrader (diretor) Tony Straiges (scenic design) Rita Ryack & Martin Schnellinger (costume design) Jason Lyons (lighting design) Fabian Obispo (sound design & original music) Other Credits: Written by: by Christopher Marlowe; adapted by David Bridel & Andrei Belgrader

Dick and Robin (Ken Cheeseman and Lucas Caleb Rooney)

The program describes the show as “adapted… from the play by Christopher Marlowe,” and copious liberties have indeed been taken with the original. The adaptors, David Brindel and Andrei Belgrader (who also directs), have for the most part left the Mephistopheles and Faustus’s “serious” scenes intact, though there are some alterations and additions. (Most of these are innocuous, but a few signal a distressing distrust of the audience’s intellect. Near the play’s end, damnation looming, Faustus bitterly laments, “My whole life is a performance,” a declaration that all-too-neatly underscores the complicated relation of theology to theatricality). The comic scenes, by contrast, have been rewritten and in many cases reconceived—as, indeed, some of them are between the original A- and B-texts. This choice feels true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the play: comic material speaks directly to the audience, and it invites the audience to speak back. Especially at first, the adaptors cleverly use these scenes as a way of drawing us in, eager and unwitting, ultimately to hold us bound in the same magic circles as Faustus himself.

In the production’s second half, however, the clever, interactive adaptations that at first functioned as delightful lures start to lose focus. In the play’s baggy middle, comedy slips, now and then, into self-indulgence. In a series of added scenes, Dick and Robin, now bandit-minstrels loosely trailing Faustus in his world travels, adopt not-so-funny pseudo-accents, strum ukuleles, and perform a zombie sketch that feels like pandering to an assumed idea of the spectators’ tastes, rather than an interpretive update of the text. This is a show that makes and commits to strong choices—nothing feels unintentional or undercooked, and the production as a whole is better for it—but there are losses and misfires along the way. (I particularly missed the Good and Evil Angels, here represented merely as voices, and the horse-courser, whose leg-pulling scene is given to Robin and Dick).

In its mission statement, Classic Stage Company declares a commitment to “re-imagining the classical repertory for contemporary audiences.” Doctor Faustus fulfils this mission, and then some. It’s impossible, here, to settle into the role of removed spectator, safely protected either by the imaginary fourth wall or by the distance sometimes assumed to be built-in to the relationship of contemporary audiences to “classical” drama. We’re all in this room together, in this story together, in this pact with the devil together.

After the show ended, I thought a lot about the final scene, in which Faustus lives out the last hour of his life in accelerated time. Delivering the powerful final speech, Noth’s Faustus didn’t seem, at first, aware of the full horror of what he faces. He pleads with God—“Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, / A hundred thousand, and at last be saved”—in the same faintly incredulous tone in which he articulates the futility of this plea: “No end is limited to damnèd souls.” But even here, actor and director were making a strong interpretive choice, which the staging itself ultimately made clear. CSC’s Faustus makes a pact with the devil because, on some level, he wants to believe: not only in hell, but in heaven, not only in the dark powers of the devil, but the infinite and unearned mercy of God. Tragically, however, he never inwardly adopts belief; he has learned no more from his twenty-four years with Mephistopheles than from the books of divinity he rejects in the opening scene. Now as then, he can say theologically correct words—“the reward of sin is death”; “no end is limited to damnèd souls”—but he cannot fully apprehend their meaning.

As Faustus stumbles upstage, sinking into a reddish cloud of smoke—the mouth of hell—Mephistopheles appears again, first in his ghastly shape, then in his human one. He watches, curious and a little distant, as Faustus (now half-hidden in haze) extends his arms: “Ah, Mephistopheles!” The cry, in this staging, is neither a realization nor a curse; it’s a cry for help. Noth’s Faustus cannot really beg for mercy from God, because, even now, he turns toward the wrong source of salvation. Having laughed its way to hell, the play ends on a bleak note, as the devil watches his protégé disappear. Faustus, frequently our onstage avatar, a stand-in for the spectators, is no more. We are left with the unsettling suggestion that the real audience has been, from the first, this unassuming little devil, with his folding stool, humble posture, and faintly malevolent unflappable calm.

Chris Noth in DOCTOR FAUSTUS   Photo by Joan Marcus

Doctor Faustus
Classic Stage Company
Cast List:
Jeff Binder
Ken Cheeseman
Zach Grenier
Carmen M. Herlihy
Walker Jones
Chris Noth
Geoffrey Owens
Lucas Caleb Rooney
Production Credits:
Andrei Belgrader (diretor)
Tony Straiges (scenic design)
Rita Ryack & Martin Schnellinger (costume design)
Jason Lyons (lighting design)
Fabian Obispo (sound design & original music)
Other Credits:
Written by: by Christopher Marlowe; adapted by David Bridel & Andrei Belgrader

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