Horror movies with the hoary themes of demon-summoning and deals with the devil proliferate on our screens. Political nightmares dominate the news. And of course we’re deep into the era of Harry Potter. So it’s too bad more people don’t get to see The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
One of the precious few dramas left us by Shakespeare’s great contemporary Christopher Marlowe, the play is almost an ur-text for some of our most common pop-culture tropes. And, in the hands of talented theater folk, it remains a rollicking, scary-good time after more than four centuries.
Just in time for the holidays, the Secret Theatre presents a smashing new staging of the classic. As usual, the company’s creative team crafts inviting drama in a small, awkward space. And somehow (a deal with the devil?) they’ve performed the impressive trick of conjuring a wonderful Faustus.
In a smart and crackling performance, Conner Keef gives us a preening and dreadfully matter-of-fact necromancer. His Faustus is obnoxiously confident, yet periodically shriveled by doubt; scholarly and brilliant but a slave to his ambitions. He’s a protagonist with no apparent redeeming qualities, yet who keeps us riveted.
Of course, Marlowe, knowing his Doctor wasn’t very likable, spins out plenty of action around him. Comic-relief lower-class folk annoy the nobles who’ve taken a shine to Faustus since his accession to the conjuring throne. Sara Giacomini is daggers of fun as Robin, the “clown” drafted as a servant to Faustus’ own serving-man Wagner (Jinho Woo) and abetted in mischief by the tricky Dick (Joseph Signa). Giacomini gives a concise master class in the kind of all-in clowning that allows us to continue to suspend our disbelief.
Effective in a milder way is Preston Fox as Mephistophilis the demonic fallen angel, glammed up with heavy makeup and shredded black leather, doing Faustus’ bidding in the courts of Europe as the magician enjoys the four-and-twenty years of earthly power he’s negotiated. The dumb shows of historical figures and personifications Mephisophilis summons for the amusement or edification of Faustus and his newfound high-born friends manage to be creepy right through their histrionic moans and cardboard swords.
Ominous music and sound, basic but effective period costuming and underworld wear, spooky lighting – the inventive creative team undergirds the mostly solid performances. (One or two accents leave something to be desired.) Director Justin Bladridge makes clever use of the full cast to create scuttling energy in many scenes. In ever-changing roles they circle and dance, threaten and support, amid ever-thickening constellations of open books spread about the floor.
Those books might remind us that textural choices have to be made in producing any play of this era. Scenes and speeches are often cut or rearranged. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus exists in more than one form to begin with, and other writers contributed pieces of some versions of the text.
That said, I can’t see why anyone would cut the play’s most famous line and speech. (Hint: Helen of Troy.) It occurs near the end, after Faustus’ fate is well finalized. But it adds another leaf to the volume of his personality. On no evidence whatsoever, I’m going to believe the omission was a joke at the expense of us English majors. I mention it because it did throw me for a bit of a loop. It would have no effect on viewers who don’t know the play or have only a dim memory of reading it years ago.
In any case, this is the kind of production that proves centuries-old plays now thought of as classic literature can also be up-to-the-minute fun. This play about a scholar turned to the dark side is of much more than scholarly interest. Listen to your Good Angel (Steven Michael Martin, who is also a good Benvolio) and get thee to The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus while it’s still at the Secret Theatre, through Dec. 15 only. Get tickets online.