Court Theatre

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul? –John Faustus, PhD

Years ago I listened to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading Faustus’s death soliloquy. The memory alone still gives me an exalted chili. Damn if I haven’t always wanted to see this play. Not just because I’m attracted to the lush abandon of Christopher Marlowe’s dramatic verse, but because of the very character of Faustus. Faustus inflames the imagination–a man who’d sell his soul for the chance to touch and taste every one of life’s pleasures. Yes, Faustus, and only Faustus, is the man for the job. He’s the only tragic hero with enough pride to think he can swindle Lucifer and the appetite voracious enough to get his money’s worth.

Of course, everything hinges on the actor playing Faustus; as Faustus goes, so goes the play. Which happens to be the major problem with the current production, since John Henry Cox is wanting more than a little bit of soul as Faustus. Instead of soul, Cox offers up his all too sonorous, albeit articulate, voice and the patented histrionics that leave you wishing that he’d just get on with it already. But soul? Without a huge soul, a juggernaut of a soul, Faustus is just another professor on sabbatical. His damnation is no tragedy. Worse, it’s no big deal. At times I was even prompted to wonder why Lucifer would want this guy around in the first place.

Roughly, Cox presents two sides of Faustus. One is the young intellectual buck, the sport, the braggart. Like when Cox puffs out his chest and taunts Mephistophilis: “Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude.” Cox is unconvincing in this aspect. Rather than young and cocky, he looks more like a classics scholar having a midlife crisis, or, more often, like an actor trying to play a character half his age. It’s as ludicrous as William Shatner in a toupee. The other side Cox portrays is the gnasher of teeth, the damned soul meeting his ultimate deadline. Cox plays this aspect nearly flat out through most of the play, which leaves him in the desperate position of having to turn the angst amplifier up to 11 for the big death scene. The result, as Hamlet once cautioned the players, “out-herods Herod.”

These two aspects, such as they’re portrayed, fall short of conjuring a Faustus of overwhelming lust, ambition, and curiosity, who dissipates over a period of “four and twenty years.” The role demands a protean actor, someone with the physicality of Crispin Glover and the know-how of Klaus Maria Brandauer. What a distressing thought.

On the other hand, there’s the matter of Mephistophilis, a formidable role in its own right. And David Darlow gives one hell of a performance as Lucifer’s field agent, looking like the vampire in Nosferatu in a white Nehru suit. Darlow is surprisingly astringent. The air seems to dry up and crackle in his passage, dramatizing Mephistophilis’ remark that hell isn’t a place but rather a state of being. Each gesture, each step that Darlow makes has a slow and sure purpose. Even as he seduces Faustus with a forbidden book, his hand lingers in the air a full moment after the book is snatched away. It’s as if. to say, these trifles will change hands easily, but one day, Faustus, your soul will be in my hand, and my grip is eternal.

The best scenes therefore are the ones where Mephistophilis takes the stage. I especially enjoyed the temptation scenes and (in the light of modern science) the scene when Mephistophilis disinforms Faustus on the subject of astronomy. By far the worst scenes are the low comedy interludes involving Robin, the clown (played by Charles Gerace). These scenes–in which Robin engages in some amateur necromancy–are meant to comically counterpoint Faustus’s dealings with the devil. They form a sort of satire within the play. Well, this may have cracked up the groundlings in Marlowe’s day, but it all seems pretty stupid now. No doubt some actor, somewhere, could have done a better job than Gerace, but I wouldn’t want to sit through it. At least director Nicholas Rudall edited out a good deal of the original high jinks. Would that he had gotten rid of the rest.

Overall, Rudall’s direction reflects the staid sobriety of academic revival. There are few special effects, a couple jets of flame and some rear screen projections. These effects are perfunctorily introduced, as if the audience expects something of the sort and so, all right, here they are. One such display–in the scene when Mephistophilis distracts Faustus from the gravity of his deadly bargain–is altogether lame. First there’s a slide depicting the planet Earth, then one of a pretty woman, and finally a figure dangling and spinning from a rope like a circus performer. Like, wow! You mean I get all this and all you want is my immortal soul?

Most of the staging consists of getting the actors out there and running through the dialogue in a setting that looks like the construction site of a parking garage. So casting is important. Aside from the crucial error of miscasting Faustus, Rudall has responded to this challenge by seeding the cast with some Equity actors in the major roles, and backfilling with some youngsters. Of the supporting cast, only Daniel Oreskes (as Wagner, Faustus’s servant) shows some talent as a classical actor. And David Sinkus (as the Friar) distinguishes himself as the only actor capable of matching Cox cliche for cliche. Not exactly what I’d term an ensemble.

Aside from Darlow’s excellent performance as Mephistophilis, the best you can say about this production is that you can understand the dialogue–no mean feat when it comes to the Elizabethans. Yet it would seem, especially with Doctor Faustus, that that’s the least you could do. In Faustus’s opening soliloquy–which is Cox’s best effort–Faustus sets aside his books on logic, medicine, law, and divinity; mere words aren’t enough for him. He turns to necromancy because there’s so much more to be gained, and, of course, more to be lost. High stakes. It’s the same with Doctor Faustus, the play. Maybe that’s why I’ve only come across this one production in a quarter century. As Eugene Ionesco said in a New York Times article a few months ago, “One can dare anything in the theater, and it is the place where one dares the least.” It’s high time someone else dared to produce Doctor Faustus.

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