Faustus presented by Shakespearemachine at the ArtsLab Theatre
"What would you do with ultimate power?"
"Would you trade your soul to get something you've always wanted?
Why or why not?"
"When does ambition become dangerous?"
Before entering the theater, audiences of Shakespearemachine's Faustus encountered three large poster boards posing the above questions. A stack of neon sticky notes lay in front of each so audience members could post their responses publicly. Viewing the production during its final weekend, I was intrigued by the accumulated responses. Replies to the possibility of "ultimate power" included several promises to impeach the current US President, and humanitarian calls for action: "Force the US gov't to believe in global warming," "Make everyone immortal, colonize Mars," "Give Unlimited funds to Libraries," and a forceful rejection: "Give it Back!" Reactions to the proposition of trading one's soul included a number of firm refusals, a few expressions of doubt in the existence of a soul, and the eye-brow raising claim, "I Already Did." In weighing in on [End Page 519] when ambition becomes dangerous, notable responses included, "When it's at someone else's expense," "When it's all you think about…," and, with four other sticky notes expressing approval, "When it turns you into an asshole!"
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The majority of sentiments expressed by this sampling of the audience ran counter to the raging egotism of Chase Francis's Faustus. The youngest performer I have ever seen enact the character, Francis played Faustus as an energetic and petulant millennial, groomed like a hipster with a well-trimmed beard, a trendy haircut, and thick-rimmed glasses. Faustus's vigor was immediately showcased in the opening scene in his study. Instead of sitting at a desk in calm contemplation, Faustus wildly threw himself around an unkempt room, impatiently flipping through the pages of book after book as he proclaimed the insufficiencies of each major discipline of learning. Uninterested in any other application of knowledge, Faustus was single-mindedly chasing absolute power. As opposed to the bored philosopher whose insatiable curiosity takes him too far, Francis's Faustus was a less sympathetic figure who maniacally laughed as he blasphemed. Outfitted with such an unsavory persona, Faustus was positioned as the deserving prey of demonic manipulation. [End Page 520]
For most of the show, audiences viewed a play within a play as, unbeknownst to Faustus, the demons he had attracted did not grant him any actual power, but presented its illusion. Mephistophilis (Halee Bandt) stage-managed a dream-like parade of events that catered to Faustus's base desires and encouraged behavior that would ensure his damnation. As the demons fashioned an ostentatious show for Faustus, audiences were in turn treated to an extravagant pageant of spectacular sights and sounds. A fledgling company founded by alumni of IPFW, Faustus was Shakespearemachine's fourth production and first foray into adapting a play not written by Shakespeare. Featuring staples of their company style such as masked performers and the use of puppets, their production also included an elaborate set, an intricate lighting design, and an original heavy metal score performed live by an offstage electric guitarist. All of these staging elements coalesced into a doomed, but gleefully mischievous power fantasy turned up to eleven.
Six performers enacted all of the characters in Shakespearemachine's Faustus. Those who took on the demons' parts wore white body suits, layering on costume accessories and different masks as a part of their façade. While Faustus was entirely fooled by these disguises, their artificiality seemed purposely obvious, establishing a privileged level of perception for audiences. Not only was Faustus unable to discern the demons' own shape-shifting, he was also fooled by obvious inanimate figures that he mistook for real people. The Pope, the Emperor of Germany, and the Duke of Vanholt were each represented by the same scarecrow-like puppet handled and voiced by Bandt's Mephistophilis. All that changed was the specific headwear and the cloak that the puppet wore. Similarly, when Faustus conjured Helen of Troy, he was presented with an undressed mannequin to which he delivered his famous lines, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" (5.1.93–94).
Lighting was a key thematic tool in this production. As both the director and lighting designer, Nick Tash skillfully arranged many striking uses of illumination. Conventionally a symbol of knowledge, a powerful ray of light emanated from the book that the demons playing Cornelius and Valdes supplied Faustus for his conjuring. That light was so bright and blinding that Faustus squinted as he beheld it. Tying in with Faustus's inability to see through the demons' masquerade, the production suggested that a cost of his self-serving knowledge was a blindness to the world beyond himself. As a complementary backdrop, an ornate interior wall of Faustus's study served as a blackboard for Faustus's conjuring symbols. [End Page 521] When illuminated from different angles, this set often caught fascinating shadows of the performers, but it came into especial use when Faustus signed his soul away. Just as Faustus discovered the phrase "Homo Fuge" appearing upon his arm, a black light revealed the warning also etched on the backdrop. Together with Faustus's scribbles, this wall's hidden, but always already present message then resembled a palimpsest, materializing Faustus's superscription of his will over all else.
Shakespearemachine's heavy metal Faustus reveled in its exploration of the taboo, but also offered a sober condemnation of unapologetic self-interest. This created an odd dynamic in terms of allegiances. With Francis's Faustus hardly a sympathetic figure, Mephistophilis and the rest of the demons seemed all the more alluring. With the audience positioned to favor the cons over their gull, the production implied audiences' silent consent and participation in the demons' long con, an allegiance cemented by the audience's clear enjoyment of the rich spectacles and guitarist Alex Volz's power chords as Faustus sped his way toward eternal damnation. Shakespearemachine, like many other local theater groups, has aimed to produce shows which resonate with their contemporary audiences. With Faustus, they created a unique experience where audiences could vicariously relish in Faustus and Mephistophilis's sinful misadventures, but at the same time could also denounce Faustus's power-hungry narcissism. In light of the various responses to the poster boards outside of the theater, perhaps audiences and the company alike were in agreement that risk of the soul's damnation may not be as great of concern today as the threat of men like Faustus, whose only desire for knowledge and power is not to help others, but to satiate their own vain desires.