Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, written in the run-up to his murder in 1593 at the tender age of 29, was and still is a notorious and influential work.
“These metaphysics of magicians, / And necromantic books are heavenly!”
Doctor Faustus' earthly pursuits no longer satisfy him. Discontented with the mysteries that have thus far evaded his scholastic research of philosophy, law, physics and divinity, Faustus (Chris Noth) absorbs the profits and delights of necromancy books and chases the devil's tail, literally, by summoning Lucifer's demon servant Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier). A binding pact is made; twenty four years of hedonistic pleasure and supernatural power in exchange for his soul. As to his sacrifice, Faustus' reasoning is not without merit. All are sinners and death is inevitable, but in the shade of the abyss, answers to the celestial enigmas that Faustus craves, remain as such.
In Classic Stage Company's Doctor Faustus, directed and co-adapted (with David Bridel) by Andrei Belgrader, a beast of sorts has been summoned. Amid the bare breasts, puppetry, chorus numbers (“Come to Hell and have some fun...”), and misjudged modern vernacular throw-ins, bemusement lingers amid a shaky production and the need for a stiff drink.
At its worst, Doctor Faustus' impropriety is its only consistency; red noses and water pistols are among the many things missing from its clownish attempts at comedy. At times, pantomime and Springtime for Hitler came to mind. There are frequent and uncomfortable attempts at audience participation including a singalong that only a lean echoey subsection sang along to. The clown getting his iambic pentameter chops around the word “pussy” (not the cat) is but one example of an eyebrow raiser. In fact, the biggest laugh came when a lady in the audience, who had to shift out of the way while the woman next to her was plucked for devilish on-stage deeds, uttered “Why her and not me?” - reminiscent of a nod in reverse to the famous line in When Harry Met Sally.
Purists may balk at such creative intervention with talk of Marlowe turning in his unmarked grave. In the Faustian tradition, certain audience members were overheard relinquishing their tickets to eternal damnation, but it's not all bad. The play's better parts come directly from the page (whether it be the 1604 or 1616 version), when the effects and theatrics are played down. The manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins are amusing in odd numbers. Jerry Binder, Ken Cheeseman, Carmen M. Herhihy, Walker Jones, Marina Lazzaretto, Geoffrey Owens and Lucas Caleb Rooney do well in multiple/quick-change roles. Grenier as Mephistopheles gives a subtle and convincing performance as someone who knows his way around the corridors of Hell.
Noth, in the title role, while exuding dark charisma and delivering blank verse as accessible prose, appears oddly isolated from the baffling theatricality, in which there are too many tricks and tampered with text.
In the right hands, Marlowe's provocative morality play endures still. In the wrong hands however, the devil makes work.