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Doctor Faustus (review)

From: Shakespeare Bulletin
Volume 31, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 132-136 | 10.1353/shb.2013.0007

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Fig. 15. 

(L to R) Melanie Keller (Portia), René Ruelas (Duke of Venice), Michael Goldberg (Shylock), Michael Joseph Mitchell (Anthonio), Hayley L. Rice (Nerissa), and Kevin McKillip (Bassanio) in First Folio Theatre’s The Merchant of Venice, directed by Alison C. Vesely. Photo courtesy of David Rice.

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus may be an example of a play that is actually better experienced through reading than in the theatre. Performances of Faustus can leave even the most enthusiastic admirers of the play wearied by that character’s schizophrenic solipsism. The Manichean struggle grandly captured in the text can seem less fearsome and more tedious on stage: by the time Faustus sees God bending his ireful brow and looking fiercely on him, the audience members might be looking just as fiercely at their watches.

Resurgens Theatre Company, the project of Brent Griffin—a Shakespearean scholar and seasoned actor who has studied at Shakespeare’s Globe in London—and Kevin Carr, a scholar of renaissance drama who also has considerable experience in theatre—took risks with Marlowe’s play that, in less capable hands, might have ended as regrettably as things do for Faustus. Griffin edited the A-text to omit the “low” comic scenes featuring Wagner, Rafe, Robin, and the horse courser, a choice explained in the program thus: “We… feel that low humor elicited by these scenes invariably detracts from the protagonist’s tragic demise. Therefore, we’ve created a stripped down, psychologically driven version of the play that focuses sharply on the relationship between Faustus and Mephistophilis (and by extension, Faustus and his own highly vexed conscience).” As much as we might quibble with the rationale, the cutting of these scenes created an unrelenting focus on the relationship between the two characters, and the chemistry and tension between Griffin’s Faustus and Laura Johnson’s Mephistophilis grew throughout this briskly paced performance even until the wrenching end.

Griffin and Carr use the term “original practices” to describe their choices of a thrust stage, universal lighting, organic music, thematic doubling, and audience interaction. They also kept with the early modern practice of single-sex casting—but instead of boy players, the cast was made up almost entirely of women (the only exceptions being Griffin and Joe Fisher in the initial shape of Mephistophilis). The effect was striking: Marlowe’s patriarchal scholarly context in which the allure of evil is largely intellectual was transformed into a world in which the temptation toward diabolism is a physical compulsion. Faustus’s psychomachia took place in a sexualized context, his self-absorption an expression of masculinity within a realm characterized by feminine sexuality. Griffin’s ultra-masculine Faustus was the male center of the universe. In reviving Faustus’s sexuality, the production reached back to Marlowe’s source text, the English Faust Book, and the sexual prowess displayed by Faustus therein. In addition, the A-text’s tacit hints at homoeroticism were transformed into a primarily straight sexual dynamic in this production. The all-female cast shifted the dynamic differently in certain scenes, however. At Helen’s appearance in 5.1, instead of the male gaze settling on the object of sexual desire, the scholars were played by women admiring another woman’s beauty. Helen (Holly Grissom, who, in a nice bit of doubling, also played the “Hot Whore”) was not a sexual object but an aesthetic ideal.

The sexual dynamic predominated in this production, owing largely to a fiendishly hot Mephistophilis. When the devil first appeared, it was in the shape of a grotesque man with abdominal muscles drawn in black makeup on his naked (rotund) belly, eliciting chortles from the audience. Griffin’s command to “change thy shape” omitted the instruction to return as a Franciscan friar. When the fiend returned, it was in the very sexy shape of Laura Johnson, suited up in skin-tight black leather pants, swaggering up to Faustus. “What will I not do to obtain his soul?” Mephistophilis asks, and, in this performance, feminine wiles and sexual charms were included in her bag of tricks. As Faustus, Griffin perfectly embodied the character’s narcissism and his utter humanity, here, characterized in part...

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