Since its popularization in the late renaissance, the Faust story has become one of the central tales in all of western civilization. It has been told and retold hundreds of times, from Goethe’s famous closet drama to the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees.” Its appeal may lie in its universality: in essence, it explores what it means to be human. The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”—here renamed “Faustus” and playing at the Loeb Mainstage from April 1-3, and again from April 7-9—combines faithfulness to Marlowe’s original text with modern staging and directing techniques. In her liner notes director Ilinca Radulian ’11 says that she feels that “Faustus” is ultimately a play about human longing. Through a beautifully visual piece of theatre that incorporates dance and performance art into the show, Radulian expresses the longing and loneliness that is at the heart of the human experience and the desperate action one man will take to stave off this inevitability.
Doctor Faustus (Nasir W. Husain ’12) is a brilliant scholar who makes a pact with the devil, which in this production is unconventionally played as a three-part entity (Darcy C. Donelan ’14, Vanessa B. Koo ’12, and Kelly E. Perron ’11). The Devil, in return for Faustus’ soul, gives the doctor the demon Mephistopheles (Isabel Q. Carey ’12) as a servant for twenty-one years. As the play progresses and Faustus understands the implications of the deal he struck, he begins to see what a terrible mistake he has made.
Husain is an especially compelling Faustus, putting a realistic spin on the doctor by playing him as a very troubled man who makes a decision out of desperation. For example, he uses the character’s complicated relationship with the demon Mephistopheles—who in this production has taken on the guise of Faustus’ lost love—as a way of humanizing the doctor. In the show they grapple with the artificiality of their relationship but they also have some very tender moments together. Husain turns someone who has committed Christianity’s ultimate sin into a very sympathetic person.
However, the real star of the show is the director Radulian. Her work is inspired, turning a classic Elizabethan drama into a modern piece that combines theatre and performance art. Paint is used extensively throughout the whole show for a whole host of symbolic reasons. This is most effective during the scene where Faustus sells his soul to the devil. He is drenched with a bucket of paint and for the rest of the show is literally “tainted” by the sin he committed.
Radulian makes great use of the physicality of her actors to highlight several key symbolic moments in the play. For example, when Faustus makes his pact with the devil, his movements are controlled totally by the devils. He has become a puppet in the devils machinations. In one of the most affecting scenes of the play the three devils wear upside-down Venetian masks and then scuttle belly-up. Their bodies are backwards, but their masks are not, so they look almost like satanic spiders crawling towards the audience. As Faustus discovered to his horror, not everything is as it seems and sometimes something that looks enticing can turn out to be monstrous.
The technical direction is just as creative. Although the stage is entirely open, the way the play is lit creates a sense of claustrophobia, as if we were trapped inside Faustus’ head. The show also uses a spotlight placed at the back of the stage which shines directly at the audience. When on, this near-blinding light allows for some very imaginative use of silhouettes and shadows that made the devils appear massive compared the doctor.
The play’s one major flaw was sound. The Loeb Mainstage is a cavernous space, especially when it is completely open, and the actor’s voices can become inaudible if not handled properly. Sometimes the actors find themselves speaking their lines while either facing down or away from the audience. As a result it is very hard to hear some of the lines, especially at the beginning. In such a conceptual production, the audience will get lost very easily if they can’t hear the actors, and it seems like this variable was not properly accounted for.
“Faustus” is a real triumph, and a showcase of Radulian’s directorial talents. The original play was updated in such a way that the psychological aspects of Doctor Faustus are explored and the more physical aspects of modern theatre are utilized. HRDC’s “Faustus” is a groundbreaking work the likes of which are not seen at Harvard very often.
—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at email@example.com.
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