An Apology for the Course & Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening
By Justin Hayford
The more it’s tapped, the more Theater Oobleck’s well of creativity seems to replenish itself. A decade ago, this scraggly band of political and literary renegades arrived from Ann Arbor to produce a string of sprawling, ambitious, exhaustively entertaining plays. Holed up on Broadway in the former home of onetime avant-garde darlings IgLoo Theater, Oobleck worked so fast and furiously that their torrent of brilliance seemed destined to dry up in short order. The withering of their work a few years later, when they moved north to Andersonville, appeared to confirm the inevitable.
But after a brief hiatus, Oobleck proved the smug naysayers (myself included) dead wrong with works like David Barnstraw’s Antistasia, David Isaacson’s The Making of Freud and Babette’s Feast, and Danny Thompson’s Necessity. In recent years they’ve managed to combine their early leftist iconoclasm and operatic fancy with a rigorous reexploration of the basics of character and plot. As a result, the outrageous is now more focused than ever.
It may be the perfect time for Oobleck cofounder Mickle Maher to rejoin the group. Absent for seven years, he’s recently completed a degree in creative writing at Bennington College, and the new level of craft and precision he brings to the troupe makes his early wonders seem mere exercises. Anyone who had the pleasure of listening to him rant about the moral quagmire of obsessive love in last year’s The Invasion of Desire and the Resistance to That Invasion knows how much complexity Maher can pack into an apparently simple image.
Maher’s acting seemed a bit forced in that independently produced piece. But in his first official Oobleck show since returning to the company–the preposterously titled An Apology for the Course & Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening–his acting reaches the same level of nuance and sophistication as his writing, albeit in an intentionally ham-handed way. He portrays Faust, the legendary Renaissance genius turned satanist, as a klutzy, bellicose, self-important buffoon trying to convince himself that he matters. Sputtering and fuming as he circles an implacable Mephistopheles seated center stage–a devil with a “face like the mouth of an infinitely shallow well”–Faust spends the last hour of his life beating back the feeling of debilitating insignificance that has consumed him since he signed his hellish contract 24 years earlier. Yet he knows that even in this moment of high drama, with his life draining away, he has nothing better to do than “speak to a group of strangers about nothing in particular.”
Maher’s ingenious twist on the legend is that Faust’s pact with the devil does not elevate him to a position of power, as it does in Marlowe’s and Goethe’s versions, but reduces him to utter irrelevance. With a hated devil always at his side, poking his nose into Faust’s business day in and day out, Faust saw the benefit of turning his life into a blank slate; if hell cannot know Faust, he reasoned, then Faust cannot know hell. So he’s spent 24 years doing next to nothing, shrinking his existence to a cipher. All he does is scrawl hatch marks in a diary, scribbled without reason, tallying nothing. This “very orderly expression of nothing whatsoever” is the only record of his ordeal–an apt metaphor for his life, in which trivial events piled up without consequence leave no mark on his soul. He confesses he never did anything great but was merely “associated with greatness”–namely the grandiose lies Marlowe, Goethe, and the like told about him to bolster their literary careers.
Further diminishing Faust is the decidedly incidental nature of Mephistopheles’ evil. He’s no master manipulator, no titanic force; he’s just a noodge, an annoying roommate leaving crumbs in Faust’s bed and perpetually reading over his shoulder. Maher’s Mephistopheles–played by an exquisitely indifferent Colm O’Reilly–sits like a block of wood enduring Faust’s blather in silent boredom for the entire hour, driving the good doctor mad. In Maher’s vision, evil is implacably banal, an incessant minor irritant stealing one’s dignity at every turn.
Like most Oobleck shows, An Apology is rich in digression. Maher sends his Faust on a quest for the profound meaninglessness of history, and he finds it, of all places, in a 7-Eleven sign as well as among an ancient tribe whose language consisted of only one word, though it’s “a million syllables long.” The utterance of this word “began at birth, improvisationally, with the first syllable and ended at death with the last.” Since these people have no other terms to define this one word, nonsense is “spoken as a life duty.” Maher makes several other forays into poetic meaninglessness, leaving a host of tantalizing, unresolved images to float over the Faust legend.
Maher’s text–dense with poetic imagery and writerly intricacies–nevertheless plays beautifully in performance. In a rumpled suit, greasy hair tangled, Maher tears through his monologue, his studied gracelessness both ridiculous and endearing, stumbling over himself but never over his daunting text. It’s an invigorating evening–but then for Theater Oobleck that’s become par for the course.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Phil Cantor.