BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's DOCTOR FAUSTUS is Chillingly Mesmerizing
Boldly re-envisioning classical drama is the mission of Classical Theatre Company, and their production of DOCTOR FAUSTUS, written by Christopher Marlowe and adapted by Timothy N. Evers, is theatrical magic that Houston audiences can savor. The company is breathing vibrant life into the playwright's fascinating tale about the dangers of hubris and presenting Houston's first-ever professional premiere of the 420-year-old work.
Most likely inspired by the 1592 English translation of the popular Faust legend published in The English Faust Book, Christopher Marlowe's play tells the story of a young scholar at Wittenberg, named Faustus, who feels he has completely learned everything there is to know about the subjects he has studied. Casting aside his books on medicine, law, and divinity, he discovers a text on necromancy. He is instantly intrigued by this new subject and studies it profusely. Reciting an incantation he summons (or so he thinks) Mephistopheles, a demon from Hell. He makes a bargain with the devil, signing his soul over to Satan so he can take Mephistopheles on as his personal servant for 24 years.
Direction by Philip Hays splendidly mixes together new and old styles of theatrical trickery to seamlessly create a show where nothing is as it first appears. Whether operating puppets, dawning masks, or standing in the center of swirling projections, his cast makes every choice feel natural within the world created on the stage. No production element feels out of place and keeps the plot progressing forward all while fascinating the audience. Likewise, Philip Hays has meticulously and excellently cast the play with four skilled actors that ensure the audience hangs on every word, action, and reaction.
Playing the titular Faustus with incandescent charisma, Adam Gibbs creates a delightfully conceited character that simply cannot get enough of himself or his intelligence. From the first line he delivers, Adam Gibbs squarely showcases Faustus' greatest flaw: his pride. Over the course of the two acts, he deftly convinces the audience that it is Faustus' hubristic characteristics that cause him to be blind to his own salvation and eventually lose everything in the play's final moments. Moreover, he skillfully reminds the audience that unlike the other tragic heroes of Tudor era dramas, Faustus is not of noble birth. He is a common yet educated man with complicated views concerning religion who, in seemingly knowing everything, fails to ever truly know his own self. Therefore, he squanders the gifts of knowledge and power granted to him and dies a lamentable death after a wasted life.
James Belcher, a Houston favorite on the Alley Theatre's stages, brings dark yet humorous life to Mephistopheles. Alternating between highly animated movements and morose, wraith like wanderings, James Belcher's Mephistopheles is colorful, fascinating, and eerily haunting. In every line delivered, every step taken, and every gesture, the audience sees the calculated machinations of the character who appears not because Faustus has summoned him but because Faustus has forsworn the holy scriptures of the Christian faith. To call James Belcher's characterization of the ominous and fear-inducing Mephistopheles sly, cunning and manipulative seems crass and like a disservice to his sterling performance; however, better words capable of stronger clarity currently escape me.
Playing a chorus of many, both Dain Geist and Joanna Hubbard are excellent in performance. Each masterfully jumps in and out of various roles with impressive and dynamic precision. Standout characterizations include Dain Geist's entirely creepy Bad Angel, complete with a sunken, low and weaving physicality, subtle smirk, and unnerving voice, and Joanna Hubbard's immaculately and distinctively voiced and personified Seven Deadly Sins.
Ryan McGettigan's Scenic Design for the production is breathtaking for its bold choices and for adding to the spectral and spooky ambience that the production lives in. Curling up a large segment of the upstage floorboards and even a trio of the downstage floorboards gives the stage the appearance of being pushed up from the depths of hell and the notion that it is slipping away from both the audience and the performers, making the time spent on the stage feel both fleeting and urgent. Furthermore, doors on the set open and close on their own, which simultaneously spooks and fascinates the audience.
Matt Schlief's Lighting Design is magnificent, bathing the stage in dazzling blues, ghastly greens, and flamboyant reds to enhance the emotions in Marlowe's writing and the actors' delivery of those lines. Likewise, his lighting design for the production is remarkably notable for how interactive it proves to be, which allows for Faustus, Mephistopheles, and chorus to manifest their powers in unexpected ways for the audience's enjoyment.
As a reviewer of theatre in Houston, I'm starting to wonder if Macy Perrone ever makes a mistake in her Costume Designs. If she does, it is not happening in this production of DOCTOR FAUSTUS. She modernizes the production, clothing the characters in garb that is reminiscent of the fashions form the late Victorian era. Additionally, she works in subtle design elements that effectively enhance the production; for example, Faustus' red socks, the inclusion of exposed ribs and vertebrae on the jackets of the chorus members, the arterial painting on Mephistopheles' gloves, and the many small burns on Mephistopheles' jacket.
Lastly, Justin Dunford's Puppet Design and Mask Design by The Maskery & Pirate Mask Workshop both are much appreciated and highly creative design elements that make this production of DOCTOR FAUSTUS mesmerizing and memorable.
This January, it seems that Houston's theatre scene is preoccupied with shows that are deeply thought provoking and encourage introspection. Certainly, Classical Theatre Company's DOCTOR FAUSTUS fits this mold; however, they seemingly do it with a little more laughter, a little more old-school theatrical magic and illusions, and lot more unsettling ambience than others. With a show that feels perfectly suited for October, Classical Theatre Company's DOCTOR FAUSTUS brings audiences to the precipice of hell and damnation in the best ways possible.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission.
DOCTOR FAUSTUS, presented by Classical Theatre Company, runs at The Barn (formerly Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex), 2201 Preston Street, Houston, 77003 now through February 16, 2014. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m., Monday, February 3 at 8:00 p.m., and Wednesday, February 12 at 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://classicaltheatre.org or call (713) 963-9665.
All photos courtesy of Classical Theatre Company.
Adam Gibbs as Faustus is frightened of Mephistopheles.