“Homo, Fuge!” is God’s advice to John Faustus (Eric Simpson ’11) in Christopher Marlowe’s seminal work. And if you are afraid of long pieces about the classic conflict between good and evil, you, too, should heed that advice and head for the hills. But if a thoughtful rendition of a celebrated play piques your interest, this production of “Doctor Faustus,” though imperfect, may be just what you need.
“Faustus” tells the story of a man who, having mastered all academic subjects, experiments with necromancy. Unfulfilled by the study of lofty topics like logic, medicine and law, the doctor is possessed by grand visions and a desire for power. He sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years on earth with the devil Mephistophilis as his servant. From the beginning, he has doubts about his pact with Lucifer, but, either convinced by Mephistophilis or blinded by his pride, he backs away from repentance. Every time he seems to realize the gravity of what he has done, he is distracted by his newfound powers and occupies himself with performing conjuring tricks for kings and queens and pulling childish pranks. One second, he is an inch away from regaining divine grace; the next, he is back to his old ways. In short, Faustus is the extreme embodiment of human capability and foolishness, and ultimately of disastrous hubris.
But in this production, directed by Andrew Freeburg ’13, it is hard to see why anyone would choose virtue over sin.
The ensemble cast makes the temptations before Faustus seem irresistibly appealing. A scene where Faustus meets and is enchanted by the seven deadly sins is a highlight of the play, as is Michelle Taylor’s ’13 smooth portrayal of Mephistophilis; in an instant, she switches between seductive to wrathful, disillusioned to eager. When the ‘evil’ scenes are so well done and seamlessly executed, it is sometimes hard to see what benefit there is in Faustus’ repenting.
Simpson is far more engaging as a corrupt, greedy Faustus than a doubtful, unsure one. The one exception is his eloquently delivered ending monologue, when, upon finally realizing the horrors of hell, Faustus awaits his terrible fate. Here, for the first time, Simpson truly convinces us that Faustus is deeply conflicted between heaven and hell.
In that respect, the audience can identify more readily with Mephistophilis, who, though already condemned to hell, is far from ecstatic about it. While Faustus represents the extremes, Mephistophilis is perhaps a better representation of the average human who is corrupted — especially given Taylor’s consistent yet nuanced characterization of both the inclination toward and repulsion for sin that most humans feel.
The main blunder of the play is its location, the Calhoun Cabaret. A piece that deals with such grand themes as religion and necromancy — and in which characters seem to enter and exit every other minute — would be better off in a more traditional setting. The Cabaret’s informal set-up does not facilitate the scene and cast changes as smoothly as would a proscenium stage. Sitting at (or even slightly below) eye level with the actors gives an awkward perspective of the scene and adds to the casual atmosphere, detracting from the profound and difficult nature of Marlowe’s work. Although the viewer is able to become a part of the performance and of Faustus’ struggle, the overall effect renders the performances of the actors less compelling.
This play is a well-acted reproduction of a controversial, celebrated tragedy. With solid performances from its multitasking ensemble cast, as well as leads Simpson and Taylor, it is a faithful but fresh presentation of the original. Though not without flaws, it is a strong rendition worth the two-hour runtime.
“God will pity me if I repent,” says Faustus. “Ay,” responds the devil of temptation, “but Faustus shall never repent.” The fight between divinity and evil might seem somewhat antiquated or even trite to many Yalies, yet “Doctor Faustus” remains a provocative piece about the danger of hubris and avarice.