From Joe Boyd in Damn Yankees to Robert Johnson at the crossroads, the whole selling your soul for wealth, power, talent or whatever your greedy little heart desires never goes out of style. There is no escaping it, nor should it be avoided. Though it's usually steeped in religious trappings—you've got to have a devil and believe in the concept of an immortal soul—the notion of exchanging something that has no practical value for plenty of immediate bling is a metaphor that works on many levels.
And it all began with the medieval legend of Doctor Faustus, who, apparently, was a real dude who rubbed shoulders with no less than Martin Luther. He studied magic at a Polish university and frequently disparaged the miracles of Christ, and though we don't know if he actually summoned dark angels, his unconventional outlook on things led many to view him with horror and contempt. After the real Faustus died in 1540, the tales began flourishing, with the first book appearing in 1587. About 10 years later, Christopher Marlowe wrote The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and basically turned the not-so-good doctor into the literary icon he is today.
Amber Scott has taken the story, substance and language of Marlowe's play and transplanted it from a university campus into a mental asylum. Rather than a brilliant scholar who yearns to expand his knowledge, her Faustus (Brenda Kenworthy) is a quite-insane resident of that asylum. But like Marlowe's play, Mephistopheles (Julian Draven), an agent of Lucifer, appears and offers a sinister deal.
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus at the Hunger Artists Theatre, www.hungerartists.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Oct. 2. $15-$18.
As in the original, the pact is signed in blood, and Faustus acquires a book filled with arcane spells. Mephistopheles informs him he has 24 years to practice the dark magic, but there's a price: his soul. Faustus wrestles with this decision, but after Mephistopheles conjures the seven deadly sins in human form, he apparently gets a metaphysical boner and is well on his way to the dark side. He travels to Rome and terrifies a hapless Pope, sells his horse to a poor sucker who finds it's really just a pile of straw, and conjures Helen of Troy for a couple of admirers. Meanwhile, there's a subplot surrounding Faustus' book being discovered by a stable boy, but why it's in the play is never really clear.
It's a worthy concept on the surface, for it forces the audience to question whether all this is going on in Faustus' mind. But that question's answer is too obvious, since doctors, nurses and fellow inmates at the asylum play all the characters Faustus meets in his travels. Since it's clear that all this is just an insane person's hallucinations, the stakes, which should be keenly heightened—come on, we're talking about eternal damnation, for fuck's sake—seem frivolous. We already know Faustus is nuts, so why should we care about his descent?
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Thankfully, this Doctor Faustus is an economical adaptation, clocking in around 90 minutes. It goes awry mainly because the ensemble is largely incapable of articulating Marlowe's rich language. While Scott has greatly changed the setting, the dialogue is Elizabethan English, and most of the cast is simply outmatched by the ornate poetry. It makes it difficult to follow along, but, far more important, it neuters the story. A notable exception is Kenworthy, who not only makes the language intelligible, but also captures the complexity of a very complex character. (Kenworthy is obviously a woman but her Faustus is a man.) While Faustus greatly enjoys fucking people over, he constantly struggles with the sobering knowledge that the joyride will eventually be over and, based on the fact he's slumming it with an agent of Lucifer, Faustus is undoubtedly going to be sailing on a sea of fire for all eternity.
But even Kenworthy's multifaceted performance can't salvage a play that feels so white-washed; rarely has cavorting with devils felt so mild. Only one scene feels truly powerful: when Mephistopheles infects a poor woman (Kristin Schlick) with the aforementioned seven deadly sins. The rest of the play fails to rise to that level.
The Hunger Artists has always been the most literary-minded of OC theater's storefronts. Though the personnel has changed greatly during its 13-year history, it has remained true to those literate roots, and any reimagining of Faustus should rest comfortably alongside past efforts such as Marat/Sade and White Trash Private Lives. Unfortunately, this effort doesn't; the cast just can't pull off the text, turning one of the greatest works of literature into little more than a trifle.
This review appeared in print as "Dance With the Devil: The Hunger Artists' production of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is strangely trifling."