‘Faustus’ warns ‘Doctor, heal thyself’

Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe frequently receives a lot of flak – mainly, it seems, for not being Shakespeare. Undoubtedly, when we compare the two Elizabethan playwrights, Shakespeare’s overwhelmingly vast body of work is, collectively, far superior to his rival’s. Luckily for Marlowe though, occasional renditions of his works remind us of what an extraordinary talent he was in his own right; Cap and Bells’ most recent performance was one of these. This weekend, Christina Martin ’12 directed Doctor Faustus, a fantastic adaptation of Marlowe’s most famous and by far most controversial play, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

Across cultures and literary traditions, Faustus is a common character: After reaching the pinnacle of his field, he succumbs to pride and possessed with the desire to reach even more fame, power and glory, agrees to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for the extraordinary powers of one of Lucifer’s henchmen, who becomes his servant. Nevertheless, Faustus finds himself unable to derive any kind of pleasure from this otherworldly gift and squanders it on futile pursuits that only distract him from the looming threat of his eternal damnation. At the end of his allotted lifespan – the termination of his contract – Faustus is left only with a lifetime of regrets, unfulfilled fantasies and the cold, terrifying prospect of an eternity of suffering at the hands of Satan himself.

The Adams Memorial Theatre of the ’62 Center welcomed a strongly contemporary adaptation of Marlowe’s text, putting to use an extremely eye-catching, clever and techno-savvy set. A large, mirror-like frame was raised or lowered, depending on the scene, from which the demon Mephistopheles would burst forth, suggesting a constant presence, a link to hell. He reminds us of this very clearly in one of his answers to his master, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Strong, sometimes uneasy or purposefully inappropriate songs were occasionally blared from speakers, and often the whole set lifted to reveal a projection screen that inserted elements of the play into a televisual format. These audacious, forceful implementations intensified the overall visual experience and made Faustus’ descent into damnation even more unsettling: Instead of the usual parade of the seven deadly sins, Lucifer shows Faustus clips of himself as the embodiment of each of these sins in a profoundly surreal and disturbing display.

As the crux of this theatrical study of sin and redemption, Mike Leon ’11 portrayed an excellent Faustus. The immediate likeability, wit and charm he played contrasted with the path his character later strays down, giving him a very real texture. This Faustus was not a cackling, long-toothed evildoer without morals, but an all-too human man, prey to the same influences and flaws we know too well. One of the key leitmotifs of the play is the recurrence of the possibility of redemption for Faustus, as angels frequently descend from the heavens to persuade him to seek forgiveness or continue down the road to damnation. Leon excelled here at bringing to life the vacillations of will that Faustus has: We see that damnation truly does terrify him, that the sweet gift of redemption makes him genuinely regret his choices, but he talks his way out of forgiveness and gives into the more sensual, immediate pleasures.

Nonetheless, a couple of other characters offered some quite surprisingly brilliant performances, and came very close to stealing the show. Jonathan Draxton ’12, as the crafty Mephistopheles, was truly sensational, reversing the expectations one usually has for his kind of character and providing him with some real, fascinating depth. He was no longer a simple instrument of evil, but a damned soul full of bitter resentment, regret and even occasional benevolence. He showed genuine remorse for his own damnation when he tried to discourage his future master from corrupting himself, and he spoke the following lines with saddening conviction: “Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God / And tasted the eternal joy of heaven / Am not tormented with ten thousand hells / In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” The character of Robin, the play’s comic relief, was also brilliantly incarnated by Elliot Schrock ’11, who generated absolutely hilarious encounters between this dim-witted vagabond who stumbles onto the Doctor’s spell book and employs it for his mischief. This secondary plot line, which runs parallel to the main story, provided very witty comic relief to a sometimes heavy play.

All of this talent under one roof put on an extremely entertaining and thought-provoking performance, remodeling an old classic in a fresh new light. The casting of Lucifer as an innocent-looking young girl (Anna Barnes ’14), but with a diabolical edge was a particularly remarkable move. Most importantly, the philosophical dialogue that the play fosters was not lost but very cleverly manipulated to speak more distinctly to the contemporary audience that eagerly came to watch. Outside of any religious or theological debate, Doctor Faustus, by describing the slow descent into moral bankruptcy, constructed a cautionary tale for all, reminding us of the importance of free will and the possibility, no matter what, of being forgiven.