Faustus (Christopher Noth), having reached the pinnacle of man's knowing, sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for supernatural knowledge. Mephistopheles serves him through Lucifer for 24 years before dragging Faustus to hell. This morality play simplicity is propelled with a fascinating mythology, and rich text which is at times every bit the equal to Shakespeare.
The play is performed on a spare stage in front of a well-designed curtain featuring scrawled images of physical and metaphysical study. Such sparse design should entail exactness of presentation. Though the stage hands who change props while costumed in period garb but still wielding clunky headsets, stars haphazardly dangling from the rafters, and half-hearted attempts at magic speak to shrugging afterthought.
Faustus, as portrayed by Noth is certainly a man of ambition and ego. His appetite seems unending to the final scene. While his clarity is appreciated, this Faustus' hunger contains no virtue. This Faustus' yearning to know more, to find more, and to achieve more is not a Renaissance ideal, but a fairy tale sinner, which one is able to feel immediately superior to, and thereby whose courtship of damnation renders no sympathy. His demise is vacant of any soul worthy of either salvation or damnation.
The play features a very prominent subplot through the servant of Faustus, Wagner (Walker Jones), his servant, Robin (Lucas Caleb Rooney), and Robin's servant, Dick (Ken Cheeseman). By using the arts gleaned from their master, each man wheedles the other into their service. Wagner also stands as primary narrator. His commenting exposition of the plot is undercut by the play's notable lack of dread. With both wonder and horror absent from Faustus' adventures with Mephistopheles, Wagner simply arrives to discuss what we already know with an unwarranted sense of awe.
The dynamic then between the two servants beneath Wagner, Robin and Dick, is all the more fruitless. These two often abandon Marlowe's text with improvisation and audience interaction. Rooney's humor has the charm of a summer bible camp counselor performing a PSA, while Cheeseman is more successful in his more minimal attempts to goad audience laughter. These two actors, who are definitely not deprived of a sense of humor, were deprived of Marlowe's rich comedy through characterization and circumstance, and offered little to fill the dramatic void. Furthermore they are an unnecessary remedy to what should be a harrowing drama.
While many will see this play as a study in epic theatre construction, it only is in the most superficial of matters. The staging of the piece isn't minimalist, it's formless. Lighting design by Jason Lyons which blankets the stage does nothing to exhume the play's tension. Most designers however do achieve some articulation. Costumes by Rita Ryack and Martin Schenellinger are effective with clear perspectives on both character and period. Also, sound design and music by Fabian Obispo accentuates the cosmic battle over Faustus' soul.
With so much which shucks the power of Marlowe's play, there remains a core feature to this production worthy of the plot, Zach Grenier's Mephistopheles. WIth bone chilling subtlety he bargains and retains possession of Faustus' soul. Grenier's Mephistopheles betrays contemptuousness for Faustus' hubris and heedlessness with treatment of Lucifer. With each quietly shuddered word uttered about his eternal damnation, the audience recognizes the inconceivable horror of such a fate. In Mephistopheles' anguish the recognition of the eternal soul is made inescapable.
Doctor Faustus runs at Classic Stage Company through July 12, 2015.