All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Watching Alexander Burns’s creative, engaging production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” I couldn’t help thinking how the learned German scholar squandered the 24 years of pleasure he was afforded by his bargain with the devil. I saw why Marlowe’s work is not performed as frequently as Shakespeare’s and why Marlowe is less affectionately lauded. Shakespeare’s stories and themes span time. The person, not the situation, is always the most important, even is play like “Julius Caesar” that explains a political action.
The Faustian legend may be eternal, but Marlowe depicts a Faust, or Faustus, who is less interested in worldly things than he is influencing the most powerful structures of his time, a royal court and the Catholic Church (an intriguing choice considering Marlowe writes during the reign of a Protestant monarch and about a character who lives in the center of where Protestantism began).
For all that “Doctor Faustus” contains one of Marlowe’s most famous and quoted lines, the one about Helen of Troy’s face sinking a thousand ships, the lead character shows less concern about romance or sexual allure than he does about who occupies a throne or prevails at the Vatican. Marlowe’s Faustus, while urbane as played with vigor by Gregory Isaac, remains mostly sober and serious as he involves himself with settling political matters. Because of this “Doctor Faustus” doesn’t have the fun or the bite of a piece involving the devil and an opportunity for some naughtiness that goes beyond hijinks like using a spirit’s invisibility to amaze a Papal gathering with moving candles and dishes. Burns makes this scene and others entertaining with shrewdly presented magic and satirical pageantry, but he, Isaacs, Josh Carpenter as the drollest of Mephistophilises, Sean Close as a wary but willing servant, and Alan Brincks bordering on Adonis when he plays a constructive angel, cannot lift the heaviness with which Marlowe endows his piece. His Faustus and “Faustus” are so serious, you understand the pomp and hypocrisy of various courts and the schismatic atmosphere of the Church. You appreciate Marlowe’s commentary on them, but you can’t help wishing that commentary was more jaundiced and slashing, more “Lord what fools these potentates and prelates be,” a desire that may be a taste harbored by a more modern audience and which Elizabethan times may not have permitted.
The moral take of Faustus supersedes. Carpenter’s Mephistophilis may amuse himself witnessing monarchs spar and clergy battle, but Faustus want to be the diplomat, the knowing intermediary who chooses a side and uses his diabolic powers to favor it.
Not being important enough is Marlowe’s Faustus’s dilemma. He is one of the most august scholars at a lauded university. He is admired for his thorough grasp of philosophy, cosmology, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, language, and other disciplines that mark the accomplished student and analyst. But his recognition doesn’t extend much beyond the academic confines of Wittenberg. He is not Martin Luther creating a revolutionary rumpus or anyone who people travel miles to meet and see.
This irks Faustus. He knows the value of his studies and has a secure sense of how important he should be but isn’t. Lack of universal accolades make him restless. He begins to resent his solitary and slavish devotion to unlocking so many of the secrets of philosophy, science, and letters without any appreciable reward. He lives comfortably enough, but he is not acknowledged wide or far enough to his liking or desire. Scholarly gifts no longer satisfy him. He wants to matter to more than admiring faculty and fawning students. He wants to be a leader in the world.
That doesn’t seem a likely prospect, so Faustus turns to some darker studies. The oversized tome on his desk at Quintessence is about the occult. After mastering the wonders of science, Faustus in intent on being an expert on sorcery, magic, the ways of the devil, and all his works. He muses about what Satan might provide for him. He wrestles with the alternate sides of his nature, Brincks’s good angel debating Leigha Kato’s evil angel over how Faustus should proceed and whether it is worth his while to invoke Satan and make a pact with him considering how little respectable living has provided him — local honor but general obscurity.
We know the outcome. It is the stuff of legend. Faustus chooses to throw in his lot with the devil. But he is not even important enough to negotiate with Satan in person. His dealings are with a representative, Mephistophilis, who is not only charged with recruiting Faustus but with accompanying him and guiding him on his seemingly grand but actually nefarious travels.
Faustus gets what he wants. He meets and is generally treated as an equal by the leading figures of his time. He has influence. He can even get into political scrapes from which Mephistophilis can rescue him. Faustus’s scholarship is known to the movers and shapers of Europe. He should be in his glory.
But he’s not. His appetite for being the ultimate authority is not satisfied. He is at best a valued advisor, and sometimes a disparaged, offending enemy to the potentate he has conspired against. He’s at the feast and often an honored guest, but he is not the provider of the feast or the head of a government or bishopric. Even when he intervenes to help one party in a conflict emerge victorious, he is a dismissible catalyst. Seeing the world, knowing its rulers, and being involved in crises have the same result as his exhaustive scholarship. He is ultimately not important or fulfilled. The devil has indeed been the devil, and Faustus, so ready to spend everything to get the fame and wealth he wants, so determined to camouflage the lowly birth that has kept him from social prominence, has been outfoxed. Not even a turn of events when he expresses interest in love and sees Helen of Troy can turn the tide.
His decades experience the devil’s resources and luxuries have been as fruitless and discontenting as his solitary hours with his books. Necromancy has, in the long run, been as dull as study without a way to put study to good use. Marlowe turns out to be a moralist who plays warns the ambitious, selfish, and unrepentant want it means to commune with the devil and neglect one’s salvation. Faustus doesn’t even get to have a romp or a Dionysian world tour or parade in his honor before he is consigned to death and the afterlife the devil prescribes, which Marlowe has Mephistophilis says is in one’s mind and not governed by any specific geography, flames, or poking pitchforks.
Like Faustus’s pre-Mephistophilistic existence, philosophy pervades more of Marlowe’s play than joy, absorbing story, or rosy outcome does. Marlowe is a thinker, and he shares his thoughts with you, including those involving Faustus’s fate once he casts his lot with Satan (or Lucifer, as Marlowe calls him and as he is one depicted in the play).
Marlowe may not be having fun, but Alexander Burns does. As director, set designer, and sound designer, he adds theatrical touches that make his production more than the sum of Marlowe’s parts. Burns’s touches, abetted by Brian Sidney Bembridges’s smart lighting, flirt with being oversized and outlandish, but their bombastic nature is tempered with wit and taste. Burns can be big while having fun that fits the content of “Doctor Faustus” and adds a kicky theatrical element to otherwise sober proceedings.
The variety within Burns’s invention shows off the talent, humor, and overall adroitness of the Quintessence ensemble, each member of which has a chance to show his or her mettle in making a small, fleeting part matter. Alan Brincks, Andrew Betz, John Basiulis, Aaron Kirkpatrick, Sean Close, and Leigha Kato each has a moment or two that contributes mightily to the entertainment value and theatrical luster of Burns’s production. Anita Holland, Ife Foy, and Tom Carman also come through at key juncture to give Burns’s staging additional texture and provide something beyond the text to attend to and watch. A parade of the Seven Deadly Sins is made both edifying and hilarious by Close, Kirkpatrck, Betz, and Brincks. Kirkpatrick is stunning portraying a larger-than-life creature who wants to dominate his land. Brincks scores in a number of roles, making one ponder why he is only seen at Quintessence and not booked on every local stage. (Really, vocally, physically, and theatrically, Brincks has an ability to establish characters, make you listen to all any of his characters have to say, and make ordinary moments stand out. He should be seen more.) Betz is another I’d draft to any theatrical ensemble. He adds to Burns’s cleverness with wit of his own and creates the right note of drama whether he’s playing a clown, zombie, automaton, cardinal, or lad interrupted in the act of pleasuring himself.
“Doctor Faustus” gives three performers in particular the chance to shine, and unlike the title character, they take advantage of their time in the spotlight.
Sean Close has had a wonderful season. Always an actor who commanded attention, he could in past years, plead for it in showy ways such as going into campy postures or delivering lines with a Paul Lynde-like inflection. In all of Quintessence’s shows this year, and in 1812’s “This is the Week That Is,” Close shows more control of his talents. When the Lynde readings are heard, they have an effect. Exaggerated or self-conscious characterization has given way to smart, disciplined portrayals that retain vestiges of personality and individuality. Close has mastered his gifts, and Philadelphia audiences are better for it. Close, as Faustus’s servant, could be supercilious to people he was trying to keep from his employer’s company, but he did so with a more natural, more pointed approach. He was firm, and comic, without ever going into camp or ostentatious readings. In others roles, he showed the same restraint while being a significant presence in all the scenes in which he appears. The same can be said for his performance in “Saint Joan.” Close has turned from a talent who had to harness and measure his penchant for being stage center and did so with such success you are happy when he is the focus of a scene and impressed when he is playing a secondary role.
Josh Carpenter resorted to his slurpy, reptilian voice as Mephistophilis, but his line readings are so full of delicious archness, and his bearing shows so clearly that at least one character on stage is having a whale of a good time, he tivets you with each line and appearance.
Carpenter is an unyielding Mephistophilis. He is always keeping an eye on Faustus lest the scholar repent or do something that will nullify or impede his Satanic pact. Carpenter also likes the mischievous side of Mephistophilis and shows delight when diplomacy gets messy in some kingdom or cathedral. Rather the banality, Carpenter exudes the joy in evil. His line readings are particularly superb. Gregory Issac has been a reliable stalwart at Quintessence, quietly assaying roles of various size and degree with such assured, chameleon-like aplomb, you tend to take him for granted amid the flashier Carpenter or Close.
Isaac is an excellent Faustus, who shows breeding and sophistication within the modest reputation and acclaim the professor has achieved at Wittenberg. He is never the dishevelled, self-neglecting scholar holed up in his library going deeper into the mysteries of Plato, Paracelsus, Pythagoras, or Aramaic. He is man with an eye towards the figure he cuts. His regret does not derive from poor grooming, ugly surroundings, poor diet, or lack of wine. It springs from his realization that for he’s cultivated, personally and academically, he is only a star in a limited sphere to people whose opinion doesn’t matter to him.
Isaac’s Faustus is a man derisive of all he’s accomplished and in search of what’s next. He needs new challenges to conquer, and he longs to be famous and important. Why should Machiavelli have all the fun?
You watch Isaac sigh as he reads one more word that adds little to his profound body of knowledge and nothing to his place in society, which he’s already outpaced by becoming an eminent scholar and rich enough of a don in spite of his rued low birth, family background being an important element in early Renaissance Germany. You also see his curiosity as he opens the occult texts he procured. Being respectable and well-appointed doesn’t work. Maybe evil deserves a try.
As Isaac plays it, the struggle between the Brincks’s good and Kato’s evil angel is not that hard-fought. His Faustus obviously craves the different and leans from the start towards Lucifer. The deal is clinched once he meets the devil’s suave yet oily agent, Carpenter’s Mephistophilis who patiently beckons and cajoles while impatiently asking why the shilly-shallying and questioning when even the most innocent choir boy can read your eagerness to try the dark side.
Isaac maintains a dignity, even a snobbery for Faustus that carries over to his concerned by complicit servant, Close’s Wagner, a name Isaac already pronounces with the “v” sound German symbolizes with a “w” — “Vagner.” This hauteur is especially telling in the court and Church scenes in which Faustus always stands as one among equals rather than a commoner or an outsider. You can already see that whatever Faustus in deriving by being with the great and powerful, it’s not peace or contentment. He maintains an air of dissatisfaction about him, especially when he sees that kings, popes, cardinals, knights, and bishops are generally unexceptional men with more ambition and cunning than wisdom or good will. About the only time he enjoys himself is in a scene in which Mephistophilis — and Burns — orchestrate object like candles, chalices, and crockery to move as if by magic.
Isaac conveys Faustus’s disappointment and stays fairly unmoved, even in the first throes of hob-nobbing with kings, until the 24 years are spent, and Mephistophilis claims him as Lucifer’s for eternity. Then, Isaac puts on a convincing display of disbelief, regret, and remorse. Carpenter’s Mephistophilis and Basiulis’s Lucifer hold all of the cards, and the blood-signed contract, binding among the angels and devils in the religious hierarchy.
Never showy, Isaac is solid as Faustus, reading his lines to perfection and playing the character with convincing, overriding dignity.
Jane Casenave meticulously dresses everyone from royalty to creatures almost automatous in their slavery, absence of expression, and relinquishment of life. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting allows Burns to pull off some truly magical effects, e.g. characters appearing from places you can’t imagine them being or props arriving from thin air. As set designer, Burns makes great use of the slanting platform he employed, facing the opposite direction, in “Saint Joan,” which continues in repertory with “Doctor Faustus.” Curtis Coyote, Matt Hill, and Martina Plag do a fabulous job with puppets, the dragon on which Mephistophilis first takes Faustus on an airborne tour of the world being a marvelous work of fancy that presaged fun until Marlowe’s exposure of politics took over.
“Doctor Faustus” runs through Saturday, April 30, as produced by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Remaining showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, April 28 and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 30. “Saint Joan” appears Friday, April 29, Saturday, April 30, and Sunday, May 1. Tickets range from $35 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 215-987-4450 or by visiting www.quintessencetheatre.org. Grade: B+