Arts Listings

Shotgun Stages Goethe’s ‘Faust’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 07:14:00 PM

“I myself poisoned thousands. ...” Faust, Goethe’s hero—and one of the great figures drawn by European modernity—gives his cynical, unsolicited confession to his assistant, Wagner, rejecting the tokens of love and respect Wagner reminds him that the people have given Faust and his physician father since their ministrations during an outbreak of the plague. Faust’s withering reply is to expose the charlatanism of his own medicine, the emptiness of his knowledge, his egotism. 

Shotgun Players are presenting Faust, Part I through June 28. Director-adaptor Mark Jackson plays the title role; Phil Lowery plays Wagner. 

To put it colloquially—and there’s a touch of colloquialism to this production—Faust can only see the half-empty glass. “Come down to me, earthly crystal,” Jackson intones, almost in mock heroics, as he reaches for a bucket glass shelved on a rung of the excellent metal-frame articulated screen over the proscenium—at once the bookcases of his library and the walls that hold him back from life, like a segmented spread-sheet of steel. 

Soon, he’s approached by Mephistopheles, whom Faust mistakes at first for one of the itinerant scholars who come to him, like moths around a candle. Peter Ruocco plays Faust’s devil with a droll, sad-eyed demeanor, a deadpan comedian to Jackson’s eye-rolling, doubletaking straight man. 

In fact, it’s the struggle throughout this first part of Goethe’s play: Faust’s quest for the power and knowledge to come to grips with reality—and his realization that he’s not in charge, nor are his appetites and desires the measure of life.  

Jackson’s adaptation, simplifying the text and focusing on the romance between Faust and Gretchen (Blythe Foster), moves from farce—even a kind of burlesque—to melodrama without much transition. As the accents are right on the beat, gestures and delivery have to be pumped up to be expressive; the tone is a blurry one. Good theatrical strokes, good tableaux, are preceded or followed immediately by kitsch: a lot of dancing, scurrying (or staggering, as in the case of Dara Yazdani’s mortally wounded Valentin) around treetrunks is capped by Mephistopheles stepping out from behind the upstage curtain Valentin lurched through, taking his place. A real theatrical image succeeds a hackneyed one. 

It’s always interesting to see the performance of a playwright or director in one of his own shows, like hearing a composer play his tunes. When the metal screen parts after Faust signs on with the devil, Jackson trips an awkward dance in the woods—clumsy academic or Pinocchio? There’s something of the puppet show to some of Jackson’s stylizations, and an arch earnestness that is reminiscent of the puppet who wanted to be a boy: “I cannot tell a lie.” Or is that George Washington, caught with hatchet? 

Overall, there’s a storybook feel, not just Pinocchio, say, but Don Quixote. The action has a flattened-out sense, like storybook pictures, or the Classics Comicbook Faust I remember poring over as a kid. Jackson seems to want to get down to the bare narrative; the good stroke of playing it straight through, one scene flowing into the next, uninterrupted, gives the sense of a narrative flow, or of the images and sounds of broadcast, fading away like ghosts into the next immediate images and sounds. 

In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, part of the “joke” is having a scholar summon up evil spirits, only to get them to enable him to carry out schoolboy pranks, sensational escapades. Goethe takes the seduction of Gretchen, barely more than a schoolgirl (and, moreover, willing), and turns it from middle-aging romantic silliness to the depths of irresponsible destruction. An empty wheelchair Mephistopheles rolls past Valentin with a half-meaningful glance, in which Valentin and Gretchen’s mother once sat, brings it home a little as image—but, again, the image trembles on the brink of triteness, especially after the buffa presentation of the mother (Zehra Berkman, who does the job) amid the constant, caterwauling theme of scraping strings. (The last stroke, when she’s wheeled out to die of an overdose of sleeping medicine, attains a mournful quality, though not through contrast or counter-irritation.) 

In the sense of a simplified, acted-out story, vaudevillized a little, there’s a quality like that of Anime, naive but not always playful, to this production, though Peer Gynt might have been a better choice. Answering the question, whether he’s contemplating putting up Faust, Part II, Jackson writes in the program that the audience completes the performance. Faust, Part I, can stand alone. The second part—urbane, wise beyond urbanity—radically expands the horizons of part one, lending new perspective to its more intensive story. It’s not easy to stage, but it definitively spurs a spectator’s sensibilities past the nostalgia for stories alone, with or without moral—that kind of nostalgia showered on old movies by talking heads on TV. Ambiguity (much less irony) isn’t the same as uncertainty; Goethe didn’t write a treatment for It’s A Wonderful ... Faust! 



Presented by Shotgun Players at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 5 p.m. Sundays through June 28. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $18-25. 841-6500.