Though it’s often produced as a lavish spectacle displaying an overreacher’s doom, when Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus began life, 402 years ago, it was primarily a two-man show: Marlowe stressed the incendiary message over the traditional infernal fireworks. (For his better-known full-blown version, he supplied the usual hellish trappings.) Returning Faustus to its rhetorical roots, British director Steven Rumbelow 25 years ago created his two-person Dr. Faustus, under the aegis of the Triple Action Theatre, and has toured it off and on ever since, revising and recasting it at least five times. Thirteen years ago Remains Theatre presented the play’s Chicago debut at the Theatre Building, when Rumbelow stunned audiences with his ingenious, less-is-more stagecraft, with the sheer interchangeability of scholar and devil, and with the malleability of Marlowe’s proudly punished, righteous sinner. Rumbelow’s stripped-down, 80-minute version (based on the line “Faustus, thou hast but one hour to live”) was more than a clash between terrestrial and demonic forces: it explored Faust’s myriad contradictions, aided by lines from Byron and Goethe, and brought the text to life in a series of fight-or-flight encounters. Rumbelow’s version also raised the dead: Marlowe returned, his world-shaking ambitions intact and his defiant death (in a tavern quarrel) eerily foreshadowed. Returning to Chicago for a third visit, this is a hell of a show. Ivanhoe Theater, 750 W. Wellington, 975-7171. Previews July 14 through 16: Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 6 and 9 PM; Sunday, 3 PM. $23. Opens Wednesday, July 19, 7 PM. Through August 20: Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 6 and 9 PM; Sundays, 3 PM. $23.

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