Oak Park Festival Theatre

At the end of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus the chorus pronounces the obligatory moral: “Faustus is gone; regard his hellish fall,” the punishment of a man tempted by “unlawful things / Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits / To practice more than heavenly power permits.”

Yet industriously undermining this moral is much of the rest of the play, which delights in this rebel’s ambition and unrestrained zest for knowledge. Not accidentally, it reflects Marlowe’s irreverent, reckless life, cut short when the 29-year-old writer was killed in a tavern brawl. (Given his rumored espionage activities, the altercation may have covered up a premeditated execution.)

An archetype for the expansive Elizabethan era, Dr. John Faustus is the ultimate Machiavellian overreacher; he’s the intellectual equivalent of Drake and Cortez, arrogantly refusing to accept that human achievement or individual glory has bounds. Surely another motivation is Faustus’s barely concealed atheism, which mirrors Marlowe’s own; Faustus is blind to the devil’s power because he doesn’t believe in an afterlife. Both beneficiary and victim of his insatiable aspirations, Faustus sells his immortal soul to Mephistophilis for 24 years of often childishly abused omnipotence.

For Marlowe and his time, the pride of this magnificent sinner was at least as important as his fall, a tragedy that Marlowe heightens with his rough and soaring verse. Four hundred years later spectators still enjoy the thrill of having it both ways: the vicarious pleasure of unlimited power and the comfort of knowing that we still own our timid souls.

Too human by half, Faust wisely and foolishly employs his new black magic. A dogged historian, he summons up the spirits of the famous dead, among them Helen of Troy (“the face that launched a thousand ships”), to get the inside story; but he also squanders his power on practical jokes played on the pompous pope and on stupid magic tricks offered to Emperor Charles V.

Oak Park Festival Theatre, departing this year from its usual Shakespeare fare, gives a production of Doctor Faustus that summons up the spectacle that appealed to Marlowe’s audiences. Manipulated by masked attendants, the Good Angel is a ten-foot-high puppet and the Bad Angel a slavering, Muppet-like monster. Amid smoke pots and fiery lighting, a dragon heralds Mephistophilis’s entrance. Arrayed before Faustus, the Seven Deadly Sins are richly characterized by Claudia Boddy’s masks and costumes (Gluttony wears a pig’s head, Sloth a snail’s shell). At another point a looming shadow of Lucifer is projected onto the trees above the stage.

Less successful is Helen of Troy, a bizarrely amorphous, gossamer puppet made up of Thai silk; perhaps she’s a sardonic comment on Homer’s blindness. (Alexander and his “paramour” are omitted; the homosexual Marlowe would not have approved.)

Though clear and cogent, the performances in Tom Mula’s dutiful open-air staging are, with the exception of Johnny Lee Davenport’s imposing and relentless Mephistophilis, less exciting than the effects. (Let’s hope that Davenport, who recently played Lucifer in Court Theatre’s The Mystery Cycle: Creation, will break loose from this kind of role.)

In the role that should power the rest, Daniel Oreskes seldom shows the hunger that feeds Faustus’s hubris or the childlike delight he takes in his unlimited power–his strangely sly, even sinister Faustus has no urgency and little anguish. Incredibly, the theological arguments between Faustus and Mephistophilis are played even more flatly than they’re written; at the opposite extreme are Faustus’s merry pranks, which, played like so much bad vaudeville, fall flat. Most disappointing is Faustus’s usually harrowing descent into hell, which here dwindles into perfunctory “Master Thespian” histrionics.

The score, written and performed by Joe Cerqua and Marty Higginbotham, is a disconcerting mix. It regularly–and abruptly–shifts from medieval plainchant to tepid soft-rock ballads. It’s typical of the lack of a controlling vision that keeps this production from catching fire.

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