Faust, Part I and II
nytheatre.com review by Gregg Bellon
April 29, 2006
Goethe’s Faust, the man, is probably best known as an archetype of selling out, a pre-Freudian personification of the Id-Ego-Superego dynamic. A utopian idealist, he’s ripe for dramatizing. But Faust, the opus, with its uber-density of heightened language, hedonism, and profundity, has scared off all but the most ambitious producers and directors. Target Margin Theater's artistic director David Herskovits and translator Douglas Langworthy take up the challenge with a fully parsed exploration of more than 10,000 words and six hours of stage-time in an attempt to illuminate the “poetry and sensual life” of infamous Faust. Working in Classic Stage Company’s vaulted-ceiling theater, Herskovits and his design team make full use of the open spaces with operatic staging and ever-transforming set pieces that keep the marathon production moving briskly. Herskovits’s informal directing style, which includes actors pre-set and meandering on-stage and in the periphery, invites the audience, engages us, charms us. And yet the lasting impression I have of the entire experience is of the utter immensity and breadth of the material and the understanding that sometimes too much is just too much.
With that being said, Target Margin scores big with the design and staging of the material as well as with the top-notch cast. The brilliantly mobile set designed by Carol Bailey ranges from abstract (flats for mountains) to literal (a cathedral-sized crucifix) to sublimely ridiculous (a wine-spewing wooden bench), allowing for the abundant scenery changes to happen smoothly. Faust is portrayed by both Will Badgett and by Ty Jones as Young Faust with equal yearning for knowledge and satisfaction, but the physical transition rather than a mere make-up change to a younger Faust when he drinks the witch’s potion dynamically amps up the energy. Original songs composed by John King for Part I and by Katie Down for Part II to accompany certain verses with gothic but sometime silly orchestrations add nuance to the challenging translation of verse. All of these things combine to create an event, a magnum opus, inevitable I suppose when dealing with such epic material, but as an evening of theatre, it over-reaches and tends to the indulgent rather than the profound. While it’s an indulgence of reverence and provenance, it nonetheless seems worshipful, personal, and not communal.
To summarize the author’s plot synopsis, when Faust dabbles in some black magic, Mephistopheles (the devilish David Greenspan) drops in to tempt him with the proverbial proposition: the chance to explore his wildest fantasies and desires in return for his soul. Faust accepts, and Mephisto initiates Faust’s rejuvenation, whisking him off to woo Gretchen (the irresistible Eunice Wong). Faust seduces her, de-virginizes her, goes off to a bacchanal while she kills their baby and is condemned by the town and her own conscience. She eventually refuses to leave when Faust comes to help her escape. End Part I.
Part II. Mephisto takes Faust back and forth through time and epochs, summoning Helen of Troy and Paris to impress at court. Faust seduces Helen; they have a son who strives to climb to higher and higher peaks only to fall off one and die. Helen then vanishes into air. Faust wants to rule over land reclaimed from the sea; Mephisto tells him to help the Emperor, he does, and the Emperor gives Faust the land. Yet unsatisfied, he tries to steal the land of a poor old couple who end up dying because of this. Faust dies old and blind. When Mephisto comes to collect his soul, angels intercede and Faust ascends (his soul at least) heavenward.
I left out the section when Mephisto transforms himself into Phorkyas to ingratiate him(her)self to Helen. But that’s the point exactly. While noble, the attempt to present a dramatic interpretation of this piece in its entirety weighs down this poignant, passionate parable with unnecessary embellishments. These artists have spared little in raising this child of a play to full adulthood, but they’ve spoiled it. It doesn’t know any better. It wants what it wants; it’s Faust after all. But again, I find myself still impressed by many of its elements.
Herskovits allows his actors to accentuate the fact that they’re playing these roles, relishing their complicity in the seduction. Some grasp this more naturally than others. Eunice Wong plays Gretchen with an innocent awakening into womanhood that leads to a tortured repentance. Her emotional arc dominates the second half of Part I, overshadowing Faust’s story. Later, she plays ensemble roles with equal relish. Wayne Alon Scott purely cracked me up. Imposing physically, Scott possesses graceful control of his movements, jumping from a noble soldier destroyed by the fall from grace of his sister, Gretchen, to a witch’s monkey bouncing around taunting Faust. But his coup de grace is the puppet dance he does as Euphorion, Helen’s son with Faust who falls to his death. Seeing Scott’s attention to character focused through to this stick puppet brought a big smile to my face in the middle of the dauntingly dense Part II, Act I. David Greenspan, well, he’s charming, seductive, attractive, and every bit the cocky Mephisto required, and that’s not to say that it’s easily done. The cast to a person gives 100% for all 6-plus hours.
I commend Target Margin and Langworthy for realizing this monumental project and with so much detail and attention. They have created a piece for connoisseurs of theater and Faust alike. Designers, cast, producers should all be proud. But unfortunately, in spite of Langworthy’s lament in the program:
…sadly they [German classics] remain far from center-stage. A text as seminal as Goethe’s Faust must be set loose from the page and be allowed to find sensual life on the stage, for only there can it achieve its truest, fullest expression.
this interpretation falls short of providing a producible practical version. Nevertheless, Target Margin has set the bar rather high for future productions.