Johns Hopkins University Press
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Doctor Faustus Presented by Atlanta Shakespeare Company at The New American Shakespeare Tavern, Atlanta, Georgia. January 1–25, 2009. Adapted and directed by Jeff Watkins. Costume Design by Anné Carole Butler. Lighting by Trish Harris. Props and Puppets by Deborah McGriff. With Maurice Ralston (Doctor Faustus), Laura Cole (Mephistophilis, others), Nicholas Faircloth, Mike Niedzwiecki, and Mary Russell (Sound Demons).

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Doctor Faustus was a self-proclaimed vacillation between Marlowe and Goethe, at least on the surface. It seemed anxious to identify with the Renaissance version, tagging itself as “Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus” à la Lurhmann, and the program notes featured an abstract from the 1587 Faust Chapbook even as that same program indicated the scene as “Hell, 1827.” But it was a synthesis that did not carry through the production, except in a few vague costuming echoes (breeches, cloaks, a vest or two). The synthesis was best explained the director’s note, in which Jeff Watkins explained that he never found in Doctor Faustus “all the elements of a first-rate Elizabethan play,” and that he has always seen the play as “thin” with “poorly crafted interludes of low comedy, additional characters and subplots that hardly seemed worthy of Marlowe’s obvious genius.” Watkins attributed the thinness to censorship, and the interludes and additions to memorial reconstruction, a bad padding job. He added that he chose to instead focus on “the spine of Marlowe’s play.” And this was indeed Doctor Faustus stripped bare, based mostly upon the A-text.

This production was ever-conscious of its own performativity, a self-awareness that was best displayed through Laura Cole, who, as Mephistophilis, played a variety of other roles. It must be noted that casting a female in the role of Mephistophilis gave it a peculiar effectiveness; while Cole was never overtly feminine and even wore male clothes for her performance, there was a certain sensuousness that would appear at particular moments, as when Faustus leaned in to kiss Helen. At the last moment, Mephistophilis insinuated herself between the two and kissed Faustus herself. Wearing cat-eye contact lenses and moving with a lithe grace, Cole was everything from the fluttering and soft-voiced Good Angel to a childish and prating Emperor demanding to be shown wonders. While it was somewhat challenging to keep up with her ever-changing roles, Cole did an excellent job of using the set—consisting of some chairs, two tables, and a large wooden chest—as well as her physical [End Page 508] demeanor to indicate shifts in character, not an easy thing to do without costume changes. Similarly, the Seven Deadly Sins made an appearance, but instead of being a parade of demons, it was a game of charades with Mephistophilis acting out each vice for Faustus’s amusement and edification. The audience never lost awareness that it was in fact Mephistophilis who played the Bronx-accented Pope, and Mephistophilis who spoke the Second Scholar’s line, telling Faustus to “look up to Heaven.”

But heaven was very far away for Maurice Ralston’s Faustus. Willingly blinded by his own ambition, Faustus’s repentance was certainly a case of too little, too late, and even his initial thoughts of repentance seemed shallow and obligatory rather than genuine and heartfelt. Blustering and inept without Mephistophilis, any sense of tragedy for this Faustus was lost by the end of the play due to his overbearing refusal to look past his immediate desires. His continual use of the third person when referring to himself only emphasized his passivity. Indeed, Mephistophilis was a much more tragic figure, speaking with evident regret of the “unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer.” She threatened and cajoled Faustus towards damnation, but it seemed to more out of dutiful necessity than true malicious evil.

In an attempt to have theatre in the round, most of the action occurred on the floor with seating on the actual stage. Helen walked along the thrust towards Faustus and Alexander and his paramour materialized as skeletons in the upstage area, but otherwise, the actors managed a relatively small space with multiple sight lines. While the production was mainly a two-person show, the “sound demons”—cloaked cast members who hovered around the perimeter of the seating areas—provided various sound effects with drums to evoke storms, wine glasses filled with water to mark scene shifts, and their own moans and hisses. These sound demons also functioned as a collective Lucifer—a large puppet Satan with a movable mouth and eyes was lowered from the ceiling and one of the demons stepped into the puppet, animating it as the actors spoke Lucifer’s lines in chorus.

The immediacy of Hell was apparent to the audience, if not Faustus: at the start of the production, the house lights went down, leaving us in total darkness for an uncomfortable amount of time. Just as people started to shuffle and cough awkwardly, Mephistophilis walked onstage, holding a single candle. The space was slowly bathed in light as she lit the tapers scattered throughout the set and the tea lights on each table, giving as many audience members as possible a long, level stare. The end of the play echoed this opening tableau: Mephistophilis snuffed the candles and [End Page 509] we were once again left in darkness until applause broke the staggering silence. Doctor Faustus has been described as a tragedy of transgression, an overreaching of boundaries, both natural and spiritual. Faustus wants more than he can have; he is literally hell-bent for glory and power. The tragic nature of Marlowe’s drama is reliant on Faustus’s blaspheming of God by selling his soul to the devil and subsequent damnation. Whether or not we should—or do—sympathize with Faustus is debatable. For this production, that sympathy was absent or at least channeled towards other characters. Rather, we knew that Faustus, who lay writhing on the floor, screaming in terror, was indeed damned, the victim of an inescapable self-imposed sentence. And in those few intervening moments of dark and silence between the end of the play and the hesitant applause, Mephistophilis’s answers to Faustus about the nature of hell could be felt—“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it” and “… for where we are is hell, / And where hell must we ever be.”

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Maurice Ralston as Doctor Faustus and Laura Cole as Mephistopheles in the Shakespeare Tavern’s 2009 production of Doctor Faustus, directed by Jeff Watkins. Photo by Jeff Watkins.

[End Page 510]

Alaina Jobe
University of Alabama

Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1427
Print ISSN
0748-2558
Pages
508-510
Launched on MUSE
2009-09-06
Open Access
Yes
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