The San Jose Rep is currently staging a strange but beautiful, disturbing yet fascinating, dark and mysterious production. Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” is different, uncomfortable and thought provoking. As far as I’m concerned, it is everything that theatre should be.
Most people are at least marginally familiar with the controversial story of Doctor Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power, then realizes repenting at the end of his life may not be enough to save him from eternal damnation. There are slightly different versions to the written play and there are often changes to Marlowe’s story in productions. Opera San Jose’s “Faust” last year ended with the doctor repenting and headed for Heaven. The San Jose Rep’s version has the doctor paying dearly for his sins. It is a gloomy, scary, horrifying show. It is not for kids or the faint of heart or anyone who thinks actual demons may get called onto stage, as the Puritan William Prynne stated happened in 1632.
I say all this because a quite different production had been scheduled for this slot (Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall”) and although the Rep did their best to notify ticket holders of the change, some people did not get the memo and have been a bit upset to see this macabre replacement. And the show is disturbing. You need to be ready for it. So, you think you’re up for it? Let’s get to the review:
I loved it. I loved it so much. And yet… I was unhappy through most of the show. I was disturbed and upset and usually thrown by the humorous scenes sprinkled throughout. I kept thinking… “I don’t like this. I really don’t like this. But do I want to leave? NO. Actually, though I’m extremely uncomfortable right now, this is possibly the best show I’ve seen at the Rep this year!” This strange grouping of thoughts replayed themselves over and over through the whole show.
There are only four actors playing over 20 different parts, and the cast is highly skilled and up for the job. Doctor Faustus is played by the only male, the familiar and loved Mark Anderson Phillips (“Double Indemnity”, “The Weir”, “Dr. Jeckyll” and more). Three women then play all the rest of the roles, many of them male characters. All three women first appear wearing prominent and sparkly codpieces, and the androgyny forced on many of their characters adds a great sexual dimension throughout the play. Rachel Harker and Halsey Varady are both amazing playing wildly different and varied parts. Varady switches seamlessly and believably (and thus horrifyingly) between a good and bad angel, and many other vastly different characters as well. Harker’s best part is fascinating and very terrifying as an extremely sexy Lucifer for whom you could see men selling their souls (and then regretting dearly later).
But I have to state that the star for me was Lyndsy Kail as Mephistopheles. This woman is a FIND and artistic director Rick Lombardo needs to get this actress here more often. She brings such physicality to the role I could never take my eyes off her when she was on stage. Her toes were always pointed, her legs and ankles tensed at weird angles, her entire body down to her pinkies were part of her character at every moment on stage. When she first appears on stage she is dressed as a human but her body language just screamed “serpent”. Every pose she struck was tensed and fighting gravity. There was never any doubt that this scraggly but gorgeous, androgynous yet hypersexual being on stage was the great Mephistopheles.
The set is large but minimal and very technical, and uses a lot of animated and filmed visuals for backgrounds. The weird juxtaposition of the Elizabethan storyline and the ultra modern, high tech background not only serves to throw the audience slightly more off balance, but also gives a strange authenticity and realism to the Doctor’s thirst for knowledge.
There were some things, mostly the purposely humorous bits, that bothered me and sometimes brought me out of the story. There were two dress forms that stood in for some background characters and didn’t work for me. The dragon bicycle was just too, too silly for me when it appeared. And at first the shadow puppets (yes, there are shadow puppets!) bothered me as well and seemed out of place. But by the second act I had grown to love and appreciate them, both as part of the story and also as a nod to the past. What other story but Doctor Faustus can have shadow puppets AND such a highly technical set, and make it work?
When the show was over, I was glad. It is a lot to sit through. But it was also a lot to think about, a lot to appreciate, a lot to marvel over. Instead of going home and straight to bed, I stayed and talked to a friend for a great while about the show (perhaps the better to stave off nightmares!). And this is EXACTLY what should happen when you go to the theatre. This year has been a very interesting one for the SJ Rep, and I think it’s been a great improvement and breath of fresh air over last season. So if you can stand to watch a pope wearing sparkly pink pumps on stage, get to the Rep and watch Doctor Faustus before it ends its run.
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Through June 2
San Jose Repertory Theatre
But wait, there’s more to the season!
As a surprise to me anyway, there is one more show this season: A Minister’s Wife, a “new musical re-telling of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida” starts on June 20! So if you don’t think you have the heart or stomach for Doctor Faustus, “A Minister’s Wife” is probably the show for you. I will see you there!