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A CurtainUp Review
The show spotlights two high profile stars, Chris Noth, as Doctor Faustus and Zach Grenier as Mephistopheles. Under the direction of Andrei Belgarder, who also did the adaptation with David Bridel, make their intentions as perfectly clear as they are sound. They audaciously showcase the 16th century rebel John Faustus in his descent into Hell with uncompromising tongue-in-cheek.
The excellent and invaluable Classic Stage Company Newsletter (distributed free in the lobby), gives audience members a preview of what inspired director Belgrader to approach to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the most famous tragedy in English before Shakespeare. They clarify why it is done as the kind of elaborately cheesy street road-show/magic show presumably presented by the actual and most admirably entrepreneurial John Faustus during the middle ages.
Referring to Faustus as a showman à la P.T. Barnum, Belgrader has used the CSC's three-quarter in the round seating and its compact playing area to present Faust's misadventures and his delightfully corny theatrical displays of necromancy. Even more engaging is the acting company's recruitment of audience members who are regularly brought into the action. It's a gimmick that works rather well, as least it did at the performance I attended.
The setting designed by Tony Straiges abounds in astrological symbols and celestial bodies hanging from the rafters, all made luminous by Jason Lyons's expert lighting. Costume Designers Rita Ryack and Martin Schnellinger have also given appropriate wit to the wearables which include grotesque masks.
I don't know how much or if any of Marlowe's iambic pentameter remains in this adaptation. What I do know is that I was often moved to laughter by the devilishly clever text and the style and speed of the performance. Especially winning is the wry, devil-may care insouciance of Grenier as Lucifer's left hand man is smugly seductive and always careful not to overplay his hand. Though best known lately for his snarky David Lee in The Good Wife Grenier has also given laudable performance in many stage plays.
The good-looking Noth, the other alum from The Good Wife and also remembered as Mr. Big from Sex and the City, is basically consigned to being the studious straight man who desperately wants twenty four years in which to be "wanton and lascivious but no marriage." For this, he compromises his soul with a contract written in blood in order to experience more profound intellectual and sensual truths. Noth does well enough with the soliloquies and revealing his intellectually considered anxieties in contrast to the over-the-top excesses of the supporting cast.
Fun, participation and gamesmanship are the key components of this whimsical adaptation that's staged as a series of vaudeville sketches — climaxed by satanically inspired depictions of the seven deadly sins. I won't spoil that fun by revealing their surprises.
I was most impressed by the comically clownish antics of Walker Jones, as Faust's manservant. the routines of Ken Cheeseman and Lucas Caleb Rooney, among the others in the ensemble, recall the unapologetic largess of the classic baggy-pants comics of yore.
There have been other notable adaptations and stagings but Belgraders approach strikes me as uniquely and admirably on the mark. At its best, it's defensibly low, lively and loose and yet serves as a perfect-for-our-time complement to Marlowe?s own richly witty and evidently more ritualistic embrace of the eternal myths and infernal legends of Faust.
Editor's note: Though Marlowe's plays are not as frequently produced as Shakespeare's, this has been a good year for him. As Dr. Faustus brought Noth and Grenier to the Classic Stage, So the even rarer Tambourlane, proved an irresistible challenge for one of our best Amerian classic actors, John Douglas Thompson. His performance made the monster king's bloody epic riveting, and a trip to the Theater For a New Audience's Brooklyn home an imperative ( Curtainup's review )
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