Faust Project, Chicago Actors Ensemble. Put on your thinking caps, kids. Michael Agnew’s adaptation of Goethe’s Faust maps the not-so-good doctor’s struggle with his shadow self to Jung’s stages of psychological individuation as reflected in the medieval alchemical quest for the mystical union of opposites. It may sound like egghead gobbledygook (and much of the evening is), but no image could create a more potent preamble to such an ambitious project than the one waiting for us within the glorious decrepitude of the Mason Hall Theatre: a sandbox full of dirt with a wheelbarrow and heavy-duty shovel next to it. We’re promised some serious excavation.

Curiously, though, Agnew rarely digs beneath the surface of his multilayered source. His Faust, eternally peeved, is impetuous and therefore adolescent, while his Mephistopheles is more impish prankster than chthonic force. And his Gretchen does little but wait to be ogled or pawed. Agnew does best when he stops pushing for melodrama (there’s no end to Faust’s eye bulging) and lets his elemental images speak for themselves. In the play’s most provocative moment, Faust repeatedly pulls Gretchen back into his sandbox to rub dirt on her despite her best efforts to escape (yes, it’s a Pina Bausch rip-off, but it’s a good rip-off). More often Agnew’s metaphors are ham-handed, opaque, or both: Faust in dance belt and knee pads literally pulled in opposite directions by Gretchen and Mephistopheles. Missing from this noble effort (besides intellectual rigor) is any sense of what Faust is after. It’s like mapping Freud’s oedipal theory to Oedipus Rex: the drama gets lost in the effort.

–Justin Hayford