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Dr. Faustus

Trap Door Theatre

Last week the Labor Department released figures showing that employee compensation rose only 2.7 percent last year, the smallest annual increase ever recorded. During the same year the stock market reached record highs, and corporate mergers made small fortunes for well-placed shareholders overnight. Put simply, the Big Guy spent yet another year buying out the Little Guy for chump change.

In our economically unscrupulous era, when soulless exploitation of labor has become America’s favorite spectator sport–not long ago everyone from Jay Leno to the Rolling Stones sang the praises of billionaire Bill Gates for becoming even more wealthy–it’s hard to understand why neither production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus earlier this year bore even a tangential relationship to the real world. After all, Faustus is a lot like a Fortune 500 fat cat–or congressional fat-cat supplicant, for that matter– selling his soul to the devil for two simple things: wealth and power. He professes to want knowledge as well (not wisdom, mind you), but only because it allows him to control others. As he announces early in the play, imagining the benefits he will reap from practicing black magic, “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, and omnipotence / Is promised to the studious artisan! / All things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command.” Move over, Lee Iacocca.

The companies that brought Faustus to Chicago earlier this year–one from downstate, one from Canada–spent all their time trying to turn Marlowe’s not-so-good doctor into a despotic, self-absorbed, neo-expressionist ubermensch, blissfully failing to acknowledge contemporary realities. Of course, no law forbids a purely psychological reading of the play, but such a reading does require a bit of intuition and subtlety, not the harsh lighting, echoing sound effects, bulging eyes, and garish face paint of these productions. Just as they foolishly ignored real life, they also ignored the play itself; they paid attention only to themselves.

Now, finally, someone has figured out that Faustus is more than ghoulish window dressing. Director Susan Leigh and the Trap Door Theatre have transformed Nicholas Rudall’s Cliffs Notes adaptation of Marlowe’s 400-year-old play into an indictment of the contemporary American assumption of personal entitlement. Like her predecessors, Leigh all but ignores Marlowe’s intentions–nearly half of his text is cut, and what remains is played without regard to the Renaissance worldview the play epitomizes. Some might call Leigh a heretic, or at least a presumptuous upstart. But like Mary Zimmerman in her recent production of All’s Well That Ends Well at the Goodman, Leigh revitalizes an Elizabethan text by painting it in a palette of contemporary emotions. As a result, the play speaks with the kind of candor often lacking in today’s culture.

As Marlowe conceived Faustus, he’s an arrogant tyrant-in-training from his first appearance, dismissing his vast worldly expertise as though it were a grade school education: “Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both law and physic are for petty wits, / Divinity is bases of the three.” By contrast Leigh’s Faustus, solidly portrayed by John Harrell, begins the play full of buoyant, youthful cockiness, like a recent college graduate convinced his bachelor’s degree in political science makes him an expert on international affairs. Optimistic and naive (very American, in other words), he imagines that practicing black magic will be the ultimate high, one more exciting way to inflate his ego and increase his net worth. For Marlowe’s Faustus, conjuring demons means a redefinition of self, a leap into an entirely new and terrifying world; for Leigh’s Faustus, it’s seed capital.

This Faustus is not a man without a conscience; he’s a man without insight, the product of an elite moneyed class (like everyone else in the show, he lounges about in formal attire all evening). His conscience simply hasn’t had time to coalesce out of the gooey murk of privilege. Once he bargains away his soul, with the help of the effete, long-suffering Mephistophilis (cunningly portrayed by Sean Marlow), Faustus mostly flies around the world playing mind games with religious authorities and ingratiating himself with the aristocracy. He’s nothing but a show-off, impressing the natives with his prestidigitation like the ultimate American tourist flashing daddy’s Platinum Card in a youth hostel.

Leigh encourages her cast to hoke things up ever so slightly, making spooky haunted-house noises when devils appear (the show opened on Halloween, after all), singing reverent hallelujahs to summon the Good Angel. And she’s not afraid of cheap gimmicks: a book that smokes when it opens, flash paper, even plastic vampire fangs. The show is as subtly campy as Dark Shadows–and about as believable. Yet this lack of credibility is its greatest asset. While other companies this year have gone to futile extremes trying to prove that they really know what it feels like to be damned to hell, the Trap Door ensemble admit from the outset that the play is beyond them, that the passions portrayed are literary, not human.

The Trap Door folks never attempt to reach the heights that perhaps only a great classical company could. Rather, for the first time since they opened a year ago, they’re capitalizing on the power of suggestion. We’re never asked to believe that the people onstage are anything but merely competent actors in their mid-20s trying without much success to find an audience; in fact before the show on opening night, artistic director Beata Pilch, portraying a half-crocked party guest, looked into the half-empty house and asked, “Where is everybody?” That honest admission removes a burden of proof from the company that otherwise might have crushed this production. They’re not trying to convince anybody of anything; they just want us to play along. And it works. Not brilliantly perhaps, but more often than not delightfully.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Norwood.