Any production of “Dr. Faustus” faces two major challenges. First, it is written in Elizabethan blank verse. And second, it’s not written by William Shakespeare.
Well, you can throw any reservations out the window and go see Lux et Umbra’s blazing movement-based reimagining of Christopher Marlowe’s play, retitled “Faustus,” directed with full bore intensity by Jon Greene and enacted with full-throttle dynamics by an ultra-committed cast.
Under this daring director’s darkly scintillating vision, performances ignite and the cast jumps in with both feet.
Turning his attention to black magic, arrogant Dr. Faustus (Matt Standley) sells his soul to Lucifer’s envoy, Mephistopheles (Evan Spigelman) in return for 24 years of free reign over his every whim and desire.
Like Faustus, much of Marlowe’s life was cloaked in mystery, danger, machination and violence. A contemporary of Shakespeare and the poet/playwright of “Tamburlaine” and “Edward II,” dramas that thrive on controversial themes, Marlowe was stabbed to death in a barroom brawl at the age of 29. Conspiracy theories abound; many speculate he was a spy for the Elizabethan government and was secretly assassinated.
But Greene’s psychedelic reinvention of Marlowe’s 1593 play owes more to recent experimental theater than to dramatic conventions of the 16th century.
With a commanding presence, Standley gives a passionate performance as Faustus. Like an unwitting chessboard king affixed to a small platform, he is wheeled and spun about by a chorus from hell.
Part Dr. Frankenstein, part demonic waiter from “The Shining,” Spigelman’s menacing fallen angel, Mephistopheles, viciously relishes luring a man to damnation.
The action over the intermission-free 100-minute performance never wavers. Greene’s kaleidoscopic movement of his actors hypnotizes, creating some unforgettable stage images — none more terrifying than the birth from the underworld of Mephistopheles.
The look of the production astonishes. The unified design approach between Shawn Ramagos (set and lighting), A. Reiley Morgan (costumes), and Rebecca Elizabeth Hollingsworth (makeup) is tight and evocative.
The ingenious, mind-blowing original music composition and live sound mixing by Glenn Aucoin II puts the finishing touches on a nightmarish atmosphere.
As if emerging from Rodin’s “Gates of Hell,” the lithe, supple ensemble — Herbert Benjamin, Brian Coogan, Hannah Culwell, Kristen Gremillion and Richard Mayer — perform like programmed, maniacal ghouls, their choreography inspired by “The Walking Dead.”
Some scholars believe writers other than Marlowe composed the middle section of the play where Faustus plays tricks on the Pope, claps cuckold’s horns on a disbelieving man, and raises the spirit of Helen of Troy. These scenes are traditionally portrayed as farcical, low-life and unwelcome comedy.
Forget any such buffoonery with this production. Greene attacks these scenes with the same bold, ritualistic “Night of the Living Dead” intensity as he does so effectively with all the rest. The summoning of the Seven Deadly Sins is composed with Pilobolus-like dexterity.
By nature, verse plays need to be exceptionally well spoken. Some of the lengthier speeches and some group passages tend to be tough to follow, but overall the cast acquits themselves well.
But there is more to clarity than crisp articulation. Artful phrasing of the text is required, and despite a breakneck pace — or perhaps because of it — exact attention is essential rather than rushing the dialogue forward. At such precision, Spigelman excels. His delivery of the famous line, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it!” shoots right through you. This is an utterly chilling, startling, most satisfying evening of theater. Themes of dark side temptation fascinate us all at Halloween. Indulge in some necromancy. Unlike Faustus, you won’t regret it.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.