Johannes Dokchtor Faust
nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
August 26, 2007
As the tale goes, Faust is a fellow who made a deal with the devil to receive a finite amount of time enjoying unlimited knowledge, after which his soul would go to the devil. There have been numerous tellings of this tale: Gertrude Stein composed the libretto for the 1938 operatic version, Randy Newman wrote a modern musical version, and now we have a marionette version produced by Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater. In this rendition, Faust is visited by the devil and told that as part of the deal that will bring him ultimate knowledge he cannot bathe or cut his hair or nails, but he can indeed engage in pleasures of the flesh...the only problem of course being that ultimately he has a limited time and then he must give up his soul.
This production seems to be geared toward both children and adults. While the experience is enjoyable and the ambience fun, I'm not sure that this topic makes any sense to an audience of children. Likewise, as an adult I found certain parts slow or a bit silly.
It's really a choice that has to be made with the writing: It's hard to balance political jokes that adults get, combined with various jokes that only appeal to adults, with a general childlike feeling and moments of puppets flailing about in a way that seems directly geared toward children's sensibilities.
The jokes for adults are funny, and even funnier because they are said by old-timey puppets during what seems to be a historical period from a long time ago. At one point Faust says, "I have not known any corporal suffering since I was taught new math in school." When Faust makes his deal with the devil, he is promised "bling-bling, horses and oxen and SUVs aplenty." There is also a joke referencing Craig's List, as well as the line: "Come into my study for a cup of coffee and perhaps a chickpea or two. Perhaps we can watch YouTube together." There are also a few left-leaning political jokes, though this never becomes too heavy-hitting.
The performers are for the most part not seen during the show. They come out at the beginning playing instruments ranging from harmonica to drum to flute, and wearing splendid old-fashioned outfits. Writer/director/performer Vit Horejs delivers an opening speech. Horejs has a warm, rich voice, a firm manner that lets us know something important is going to happen here and it may not be so pretty. There is clearly joy and love for what this troupe is doing, carrying on a tradition of storytelling and the use of these beautiful marionettes. Yet Horejs soon disappears and lets the 20-something marionettes have the show. And these are some marionettes. The main Mephistopheles puppet is approximately 100 years old, and the Faust puppet is a copy of a folk puppet designed more than 100 years ago.
The scenery is well-made and a treat to look at; in one scene, puppeteers stand onstage so that only their legs are visible, wearing jeans decorated to look like trees. In another, a head pops out of a square hole in the stage, which will also serve as an outlet for puffs of smoke. There is glitz and color and decoration, and the puppets themselves are adorable.
I wish that the piece, which runs about an hour and 20 minutes (with optional discussion after) had been edited strictly for the adults. The parts that seem to be goofier and for kids don't seem to work with the rest of it and sort of slow things down. All in all, however, this is an enjoyable, well-done production, performed by a talented cast of puppeteers.