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Unworldly Knowledge

Doctor Faustus Directed by Michael Kaplan At Mather House through February 14

By Sarah L. Mcvity

IN THE OPENING SCENE of Doctor Faustus, John Faustus boldly adopts a course that will allow him to live out his secret desires and satisfy the strongest cravings of his curiousity; in the closing scene he spits upon these pleasures, as he faces his punishment, the inevitable consequence of his boldness. Michael Kaplan's verson of Christopher Marlowe's classic play loses some of the middle ground, but captures with force the weight of the Faustian decision and the heights and depths of emotion that it entails.

The tale of Faust, which has survived nearly 400 years since Marlowe's first edition, has appealed to audiences and playwrights for centuries; Goethe's Faust is only the most familiar of many works by different authors using the same source. Its appeal lies in the common nature of humans in successive generations who, unwilling or unable to learn from their parents' mistakes, continue to confront the question that Marlowe answers in Doctor Faustus: Do I have the courage to follow through my desires and ambitions? And what would be the consequences if I did?

Marlowe's Faustus, fed up with the drivel in books on subjects he studies, finds boundless courage to name his sin, and to abandon himself in it:

Philosophy is odious and obscure,

Both law and physic are for petty wits,

Divinity is basest of the three,...

'Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me.

Christopher Randolphe plays an excellent Faustus, and is best in this scene as the enthusiastic and heedless seeker of gratification who signs a blood pact with the devil, turning over his soul in return for 24 years of all-power and all-knowledge. Strutting about the stage in a black medieval scholar's cloak over a tuxedo, Randolphe makes a powerful spector, and the audience can immediately grasp the depth of Faustus' commitment to his pact.

An evil spirit, Mephostophilis (Courtney Vance), accompanies Faustus after he has signed with Lucifer. Mephostophilis attends on Faustus, but it soon becomes apparent that he does not cater to Faustus' every whim and often berates Faustus rather than serving him. Faustus' "all-power" seems to have limitations. Vance makes Mephostophilis a perfect foil to Faustus, his measured cynicism playing off Faustus' flippancy. To Faustus' declaration, "I think hell's a fable." Vance responds by filing his nails as he destroys Faustus' illusions, adding a chilling glee to the audience's first glimpse of the possible outcome of Faustus' decision.

At this point, fairly early in the production, the action begins to blur. A large part of the problem lies with the text: No definitive text really exists. The original version that appeared in 1604 contains major gaps in the plot, inconsistencies in character development, and several irrelevant scenes that seem to have been included to add humor to the play. A "revised" edition that appeared 12 years later is actually more coherent and consistent, and most scholars agree that the later version is probably close to the original.

Still, changes in the middle section of the play, which seems to be the section most tampered with by others than Marlowe, make little sense and confuse the audience. The main character himself vacillates between the tragic Faustus, oscillating between arrogance and remorse, and the cheerful prankster who flies to Rome to play tricks on the Pope. The pasttimes Faustus chooses in which to exercise his power are inconsistent with the are with which he received them. At one point, Faustus, invisible, enters the Pope's chambers and snatches food and wine from his Holiness's lips, confusing and confounding him before his Cardinals. Although amusing, this scene lacks the elegance and penetration of earlier scenes, and was almost certainly not written by Marlowe. These obstacles to understanding the play are due to the text and present problems to any director.

Kaplan, in response to the difficulties in the text--and to the hurdle of the old English, which requires adjustment and greater concentration on the part of an audience than does the more familiar Shakespearean dialogue--combines innovative technical aspects with a rotating cast. His set consists of four 15-foot-high white screens, a white floor with a red grid and black cubes of varying sizes placed with stools around the stage. Kaplan calls his set "new wave," and, while avoiding a more traditional setting, it aids in conveying a sense of the story by its quality that avoids space, time, and formal definition. In this sense, the set is not avant-garde; instead of imposing a context upon the audience which would force it to reject previous conception of "a set", Kaplan counts on the audience to relate the shapes and colors on stage to ideas of timelessness and flexible space, hoping to provide it with a solid base from which it can build its understanding of the play.

The rotating cast works less well in contributing to clarity. The original play calls for a cast of about 45, in addition to a chorus, obviously an impossibility for this production. Kaplan should have cast more than seven players, though; the entrances and exits of characters only add to the confusion which mounts in the middle of the play. All the characters wear formal black suits, as do Faustus and Mephostophilis, and superficial differences like masks are not enough to make it clear that, when one character leaves the stage and reappears immediately, he represents someone new each time.

The special sound and lighting effects, put together by Stompin' Zemo, the local DJ, add a spectacular aura to the show and are more and more frequently employed towards the end. At one point, all the characters freeze while a very fast electric strobe flickers on the black and white stage, accompanied by an electronic whirring that increases in speed rhythmically with the light. The effect adds to the sense of impending doom and chaos that builds to a climax in the last scene during Faustus' magnificent final monologue:

Ah, Faustus,

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,

And then thou must be damned perpetually...

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?

In this scene, Randolphe again rises to the expression of earlier lines, bringing the original forcefulness back into the role. Staggering from one side of the stage to the other, Randolphe conveys the helplessness and terror of one who ignores repeated warnings from angels who had urged him to repent and assured him that God would forgive him. The female voice of the good angel floats down from a microphone hidden high in the rafters, while the male voice of the evil spirit, always urging Faustus along the path of godlessness, rises from beneath the set. Lucifer has won. Faustus will roast in hell forever and taste the everlasting effect of his daring to take the path which seemed so completely to lead to the satisfaction of his yearnings.

Marlowe's message is clear: the timid and virtuous fare much better than the bold and sinful. Modern audiences may not believe in hell any more that Faustus did, but they will not doubt the validity of the theatrical picture that he draws before them and will see the meaning of Mephosotopholes' words:

Hell hath no limits, nor is it circumscribed

In one self place, but where we are is hell,

And where hell is, there must we ever be.

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