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Doctor Faustus

The Devil Is in the Details

By Christopher Marlowe
Brave Spirits Theatre, The Lab at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia
Friday, October 27, 2017, front row of two, center of deep-thrust studio theater
Directed by Paul Reisman

Faustus in blue shirt and long fest and green slacks kneels with hands outspread before a black bag in the middle of a ring of apothacary bottles and pieces of paper
Doctor Joan Faustus (Charlene V. Smith) attempts to conjure the devil in Brave Spirits production of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus at The Lab at Convergence. Below, that conjured devil appears as Mephistopholis (Hollis Evey). Photos by Claire Kimball, Brave Spirits Theatre.

That Doctor Faustus, the Wittenberg University professor turned sorcerer, is a woman in Brave Spirits Theatre's current incarnation of Christopher Marlowe's play is only half the equation. That she is a young woman makes all the poignant difference in how this cautionary tale of temptation, soul-selling, black magic, and devilish cunning plays out.

Another important equation, however, doesn't quite add up. The formula looks solid on paper. In the title role is Charlene V. Smith, Brave Spirits' producing artistic director and playing the part for the second time in her nascent career. Directing the piece is Paul Reisman, artistic director of the outstanding Washington, D.C.-based commedia dell'arte theater company, Faction of Fools. Smith brings appealing personality and intelligent depth to her portrayal of Dr. Joan Faustus, along with her thorough understanding of Marlowe's verse. Reisman applies his visual skills and intelligent insights in Renaissance theater to his staging of Doctor Faustus. The duo assembles an ensemble that, for the most part, does earnest work. Yet, the production suffers from pedantic pacing, especially in the comic scenes. Given the pedigrees of all involved, the integer at fault is probably the playwright.

Admittedly, I almost always get around to blaming Marlow for undermining his own work. Admittedly, the fault may not be so much his as it could be William Shakespeare's. Because Marlowe so influenced Shakespeare—the two collaborating on a few of Shakespeare's early products—I always count on seeing more Shakespeare craftsmanship or soul in Marlowe's plays than we ultimately get. However, I'm not sure Marlowe had much of a soul, based on his work. He certainly lacked empathy, something Shakespeare had in abundance. While Marlowe can preach an impressive sermon, his characters, with few exceptions, are barely two-dimensional. This is particularly noteworthy in his comic scenes, in which Marlowe's sense of humor blows from an upturned nose, whether he's looking down on the clowns of his own composition or pandering to the baser masses watching his plays. In a play about the mightiest sorcerer in all of Europe, that sorcerer relies on silly, knockabout trickery to get his kicks, and he impresses powerful politicians merely by his ability to bring forth the specters of Alexander and Helen of Troy. That is such plot-unworthy witchcraft I think it has more to do with Marlowe showing off his own learning.

I grant, Doctor Faustus contains one of the funniest lines of his time when the pack of "local rustics" scream, "O, horrible! Had the doctor three legs?" this after one of the rustics stole one of Faustus's legs while the sorcerer was sleeping (yes, I meant to write that) and Faustus later reveals that his legs are intact (or that, in fact, he did have three legs; could go either way). Faustus also grows back his head after the surly knight Benvolio decapitates it. Reisman stages these moments with slasher-flick panache rather than cartoonish-commedia absurdity, and I'm not sure the latter approach would have been at all appropriate (and if anybody would give it a try and succeed, it would be Reisman).

That points to the problem Doctor Faustus has in balancing its dramatic narrative with its slapstick moments, even though the latter mirrors the former's theme of ambition for other-worldly power. Nevertheless, while many of the comic scenes come off as clunky, this ensemble manages some golden moments, such as the Pope's food disappearing during his banquet, the exorcising priests being confounded by the devil they are trying to drive out, and Benvolio (Katie Culligan), with a pained, "what am I gonna do?" expression when accosted by Faustus, trying to pass off the evidence of his crime (a bloody sack containing Faustus's head—her first head) to a member of the audience.

On the other hand, in the telling of Faustus's dramatic career arc, Reisman, Smith, and company score with a searing relevancy beyond staging the play in modern dress (costumed by Kristina Martin). Smith played Faustus in 2014 when she was a student in Mary Baldwin College's Master of Letters/Master of Fine Arts in Shakespeare and Performance program. The students in that program staged a festival of plays at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse down the hill from the Mary Baldwin campus, an enterprise integral to the students' individual theses (Smith's scholastic contribution was directing a five-actor Richard II). The student ensemble staged Doctor Faustus applying Renaissance theater production process with no director (notably, one student used the staging to test her theory that the clowns' parts might originally have been totally ad-libbed).

That production, also in modern dress, had a strong feminist tone. What drove Smith's Joan Faustus was overcoming the sex discrimination she faced in her academic world and, beyond that, the political realm. This time out, her youth is a keener factor than her gender—though gender still matters—as Smith's Faustus is driven by a need to belong and a desire to count for something more in the world. When she complains that after all her scholarship and academic success, "Yet art thou still but Faustus," Smith's disappointed tone suggests she wants to be so much more than a last name; and only then, after a telling pause, she continues the line, re-gendered: "and a woman," spoken with obvious import.

Smith demonstrates veteran skills in portraying a professor yearning for stature and consequently stumbling into a deal with the devil. The play's opening scene is a 50-plus-line soliloquy in which Faustus decides to eschew the academic disciplines of physics, law, and, most notably, divinity in favor of studying necromancy. Smith uses direct address to the audience (the 44-seat theater is arranged in two U-shaped rows around a deep-thrust play space) as she engagingly bares Faustus's thought processes, highlighted by the telling moment when she debates with herself over the merits of divinity. "The reward of sin is death," she reads; "That's hard." She shuffles to another page and reads, "'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us.' Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die," she says paging back to the original passage. "Ay, we must die an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera?" This is not an enticing notion of life for a 20-something going on 30.

Her interactions with her Wittenberg colleagues are pointed. She's not competing with her peers, Valdes (Ian Blackwell Rogers) and Cornelius (Jack Novak); rather, she wants to be part of their circle, soliciting their knowledge and experience in magic. With the two elderly professors (stuffily played by Rachel Hynes and Hilary Kelly), she purposely maintains her distance via her witty page, Wagner (Culligan as a put-upon intern who, watching Faustus, desires to take her own reins of sorcery). When she sets out to conjure Mephistophilis, Smith's Faustus persists through inexperienced missteps until finally succeeding. Then, with new confidence, she takes on a professorial tone of intellectual superiority and begins issuing orders to the young devil played by Hollis Evey in a brown-checkered shirt dress, dark-framed glasses, and stylish work boots, her hair pulled up in a bun—the very picture of nerd. Mephistophilis, though, insists that before her services can be enlisted for any purpose, Faustus must sign a contract with Lucifer to give up her soul.

"The opportunity to re-gender Faustus was a tempting one—a road I badly wanted to go down—not to change the play, but rather to discover it," Reisman writes in his program notes. The director wanted to maintain the play's cautionary tale while portraying a female protagonist operating in a man's world. "Through this lens, I began to look at the play's challenges differently. Chiefly, how are we supposed to buy that Faustus ignores her fate for the entire play when it's set in stone so early on?"

Smith nails this conundrum when her Faustus considers the terms of her deal with the devil: For the cost of eternal damnation, she can enjoy the ultimate powers of sorcery for four and twenty years. To a woman in her 20s, that seems a lifetime; to me in my late 50s, I know that it seems to pass as fast as this play's two hour's traffic on the stage. Heck, my second marriage has lasted longer than four and twenty years. Reisman keeps both the play's pace and Faustus's life moving quickly.

Despite the magic portrayed in the play, Reisman keeps the production simple. Smith's age is measured in her clothes: she starts out wearing a simple scholar's vest, graduates to a hip-length green jacket, and ends in a long, black-diamond-patterned coat that appears to be silk. The stage is bare other than a carpeted floor, but the ensemble performing as Chorus, the actors dressed in black speaking the prologue's lines in turn, shifts from tableaux to tableaux en route to setting up a desk and chair. When the actors dissipate, Smith is revealed to be sitting at the desk: "discovered in [her] study" according to Marlowe's stage direction, this production's first bit of simple, sleight-of-hand (and bodies) stage magic. The desk and chair later serve as the Pope's throne and Benvolio's perch. Lighting Designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke evokes atmosphere by masterfully creating moonlight, court light, and lightning. The Good Angel (Lisa Hill-Corley) and the Evil Angel (Valerie Adams Rigsbee), who counsel Faustus from opposite perspectives, are dressed identically in black shirts and pants, an apt visual metaphor for anybody who has engaged in heated discussions with their desires and their conscience.

Then there's Lucifer. Rogers plays the great Satan as a sleazy showman with easy dance moves, overly gregarious charm, and super-slick cool. As if the emcee of a cheap, glitzy nightclub too many blocks off the Vegas Strip, he introduces his assistant, Beelzebub (Novak), with whom he exchanges a complicated handshake. Lucifer then displays his mighty powers to Faustus by presenting the Seven Deadly Sins, each personification emerging to their own pop song soundtrack through a gleaming red curtain like costumed showgirls; but instead of exotic moves, they display their covetousness, wrath, envy, gluttony, sloth (her eyes glued to her mobile phone screen), and lechery.

Mephistopholis, wearing a brown checked shirt dress, boots, glasses, and a sweater scarf around her neck, sits at Faustus's desk,  one leg up on the desk top, as she talks with Faustus, whose back is to the camera.This, however, is not really Lucifer's and Beelzebub's first appearance. Approaching the play's climax, as Faustus fears her imminent descent into hell as she nears the end of her contract's term, she tries to seek salvation and receives a visit from her old friends, Valdes and Cornelius. This is not textual; rather, Marlowe has "an old man" enter and give Faustus words of warning before departing "with heavy cheer, fearing the ruin of thy hopeless soul." Rogers speaks these lines as Valdes, and then enacts the same complicated handshake with Cornelius that Lucifer and Beelzebub previously shared. The wink that passes between them indicates Rogers and Novak are not doubling roles in this instance (though they clearly are not Satan and his assistant when they play the rustics Robin and Dick). This interpolation on Reisman's part gets some support when Mephistophilis reveals that, when Faustus was perusing the divinity text back in the opening soliloquy, "I turn'd the leaves, and led thine eye."

Evey's Mephistophilis has a pivotal and somewhat theatrically troubling role in the play's climax. On the eve of her destruction, Faustus desires to spend her last night with Helen of Troy. Mephistophilis grants the wish, and Evey removes her shirt to reveal a form-fittingly white minidress, takes off her glasses, and unbounds her hair, shaking her blond tresses out around her shoulders. I felt like I was watching a Matt Helm film when the intellectual-looking woman turns herself into a sex object, and only then gets the respect of Dean Martin's spy. It seems a jarring sexist trope for this production—except that the person desiring this encounter is Dr. Joan Faustus: sexual objectivity cuts across the gender divide when desire takes hold.

What disconcerted me most, though, was the acting of Evey in the part of Mephistophilis. Throughout the production she gives a dull, disinterested reading to a role that, in the previous three productions of this play I've seen, is cast with the company's other chief talent to pair with the actor playing Faustus. But once Mephistophilis turns herself into the gorgeous Helen, I note that Evey delivers her lines with more enlivened engagement. Is this an astute performance on her part, or libidinous reaction on mine? Even if it could be the former, the latter is the keener point. The next morning, Lucifer and Beelzebub arrive in short, black silk robes as if attending an early 1980s Southern Cal orgy. Mephistophilis, still in the guise of Helen, says flippantly to Faustus, "What, weep'st thou? 'Tis too late; despair! Fairwell." As Mephistophilis strolls out, Lucifer passes some folded bills to her, the call girl who did one bang-up job on this client. "Fools that will laugh on earth must weep in hell," she says with a self-satisfied smile, tucking the bills in her bodice.

Joan Faustus's descent into hell is tame compared to those I've seen in previous stagings, but Reisman saves the production's scariest point for the play's very end, after the ensemble as Chorus returns to speak the epilogue (again, re-gendered):

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo's laurel-bough,
That sometime grew within this learned woman.
Faustus is gone: regard her hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise, Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

As they dissipate, Faustus is again sitting at her desk, as she was in her first appearance; but this time, with a look of frustration and determined disgust, Smith slams her fists on the desk. If this seems to be an "it was all just a dream" device or the play was the product of her imagination, it works here. As young Joan Faustus looked four and twenty years into her career, she saw what a woman has to do—sell her soul or play the alluring devil—to succeed in a man's world that, implied in the merging of the Valdes/Cornelius–Lucifer/Beelzebub roles, is institutionally stacked against her. "It's a man's world," Reisman writes in his program notes. "But it doesn't have to be." For if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us.

Eric Minton
November 4, 2016

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