If you had no information other than the title, I bet you could easily guess what Faust 3: The Turd Coming, or The Fart of the Deal is about. However, it would probably be more difficult for you, as it was for me, to anticipate its brilliance. It has “turd” and “fart” in the title—it’s got to be a half-drunk, improvised parody, right? Add to that the fact that it takes place in a church gym and that the characters are actual clowns, and you’d have no idea what was coming for you. But this is experimental, Brechtian, political theater done right, with every millisecond of the hour-long performance packed with nuance and perspicacity. If you’re not prepared, as I wasn’t, it’ll likely knock you backwards like the forceful flatulence of the almighty Clown King.
The play’s description and playwright bio give the first clues to the layers of detail and sheer artistry in store. Playwright Paul David Young has a list of academic and artistic achievements taller than 725 5th Ave. His brilliance got him into, and evolved at, Yale University, Columbia Law School, and the New School for Drama. If that’s not enough, he was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany where he likely got to know the history and interpretations of the dark, Germanic origins of Faust, upon which this play is flawlessly built. Young was also inspired by the dark poetry of plays of Heiner Müller, particularly his Shakespearean adaptations. Young writes of Faust 3: “Müller is cavalier about punctuation, which is a special offense in German, where all nouns are capitalized. Müller often uses all caps, or, deviating in the other direction, lower case for everything…I popped on the CAPS LOCK and the play flew out of me.”
The relationship with CAPS LOCK is not the only obvious connection to America’s current Clown King (check Twitter if you’re unclear what I mean); Faust refers to various plays, stories and possibly real people all following the theme of someone trading their soul to the Devil for power, riches and the other usual fare—the titular fartful deal. In Faust 3 (parts 1 and 2 came from Goethe and both involve the character Faust making a deal with the Devil for a better life, forgetting from part 1 to part 2 how badly it went the first time), four clowns in white face represent the citizens of the United States who’ve made a deal with the Devil in electing the Clown King, you-know-who. The theme of trading one’s soul with the Devil is therefore applicable twofold, applying to a man who would do anything for power and recognition, and a population (or subsect of it) who would elect and support someone whom many others consider evil, or, at the very least, disastrously incompetent. Of course, as with most the-Devil-gets-your-soul stories, this one doesn’t end well for the Clown King’s worshippers; but, I won’t give everything away.
The characters never name Donald Trump directly, which recalls various religious laws forbidding taking a deity’s name in vain, depicting a likeness of the deity, or, specifically not saying the deity’s name aloud. The religious themes are everywhere, starting with the setting, which is absolutely on point. The performance space is in the Meeting Room of Judson Memorial Church, right across from Washington Square Park. The audience sits facing towering stained glass windows in the historical landmark church, while clown characters spend most of their time in church robes, the choir preaching, echoing and relishing the Clown King’s every word. The Clown King’s followers constantly ask him to shit on them, shit into their mouths, “the Eucharist of the chosen one.” In a way, this is who we’ve all become, even those who didn’t vote for him. We are a national audience waiting for Trump’s reactions, his tweets, and the headlines about him. We hang on every word, analyzing each ellipses and quotation mark, and he knows it. Covfefe, anyone? That is what this piece showed beautifully and ominously: we are a hungry nation feeding on his verbal diarrhea.
“Take the shit and eat,” this is my bowel, moved for you.
The text is as densely packed as the play’s description, such that this one-hour performance with no intermission could have comfortably been stretched into two hours. The clowns’ performances and the pace of the play reflect the desperation of the time they (we) are living in; as the play ramped up, they weaved precariously around each other and crowded purposefully close together, keeping one another, along with the audience, perpetually on edge. With the speed of the Internet and social media, and the amount of news that is continually packed into each 24-hour cycle, the choices for the production were just as brilliant and relevant as the text of the play itself.
The production is directed by Augustus Heagerty who perfectly interprets Young’s piece and its necessity to our moment in time. Scott Isensee dresses the white faced clowns in purple and gold robes, a hat tip, undoubtedly, to the royal presumption and crass gold preferred by our real life Clown King himself. Jarrod Beck minimally transforms the treasured church space, with ragged cloths and benches to distinguish the playing space. One moment that was lost on me was Beck’s mechanical dog, which was wheeled out mid-show as the clowns, now transformed into business casual pundits, spoke in horse-race reporting fashion. In the original stories, a dog transforms into the Devil, Mephistopheles; but, I would not have understood that moment if I hadn’t looked it up later. The design, however, absolutely fit with the found-space theme, also adding a steam-punk mechanicalness giving the air of dystopia. Kia Rogers executes sharp, ominous lighting work, drawing the audience’s eye as well as enhancing the emotional moments skillfully. Center-stage, continually behind the players, was a large television screen for which Melissa Friedling designed video projects that offered visual distortions that once again perfectly interpreted the show. There were moments where the clowns are exploding with poetic lines about getting drenched in fecal matter and on the screen a commercial machine plops out batter for some sort of gooey dessert; another moment overlaid authoritarian-style marching soldiers with what appeared to be Trump emerging and waving from a car as if in a parade.
As an audience member, and a writer, I was, honestly, most taken with the language; this was mostly to do with the eloquent crudeness of it. There were puns on four syllable words, poetry in pooping. I filled 20-pages of my pocket-sized notebook mostly with lines I didn’t want to forget. There were so many anachronistic references that they became no longer anachronistic, in the way that can only be true in the Internet age. It was a collage of references, a 15th-century poem about 21st-century turbulence—or should I say turd-ulance? There were the distorted beatitudes (“BLESSED ARE THE RICH FOR THEY DESERVE IT ALL”) and passing references like “Hate in the Time of Cholera.” For me, this reflected the patterns throughout history that have led us to where we are, as well as the continuous desperate scramble so many of us have been involved in since November in just trying to make sense of…anything.
The worst thing is that the people who could get the most out of this show won’t be able to see it, and probably wouldn’t choose to if they could. It should be taught in classrooms, if I’m honest; high-schoolers love a good poop joke, if memory serves. The play closes June 26th; but, hopefully this won’t be the last of it. It will certainly retain its precise and beautifully rendered relevance well-past the end of Trump’s presidency; or, as the clowns say, his “leader-shit.” Then, of course, there’s always a chance another Trumpian event will occur, like if he’s actually impeached but merely replaced with a puppet as the new “leader of the bowel movement.” Whatever the occasion, this was one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had in my nearly 30 years regardless of its absolute timeliness and I encourage all who can to see it, and I encourage its producers to revive it as quickly as possible. After all, “The shit has hit the fan for real,” and seems only likely to continue to do so.