Classic Stage Company‘s new adaptation of Doctor Faustus, starring Chris Noth (The Good Wife, Sex and the City) and Noth’s Good Wife castmate Zach Grenier, takes many liberties with Christopher Marlowe’s text but holds true in general to its spirit. Acted in a hybrid stylized/naturalistic style, it uses the twin techniques of hushed drama and broad comedy to tell the old German tale of the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for vast worldly power.
Not published until 1604, some ten years after the playwright’s death, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus has come down to us in two versions, one padded with extra scenes presumed to be written by someone besides Marlowe. There remain plenty of probably forever unanswerable questions about the source of the text, and thus plenty of precedent for non-canonical adaptations of Marlowe’s comedy-drama.
In addition to making significant cuts, David Bridel and director Andrei Belgrader have modernized or remade the comic scenes played out by the servants and other low-born characters. They’ve found new physical comedy, including cleverly conceived audience participation, within and without the original text. And they’ve preserved some of the original physical comedy, as when Faustus makes himself invisible and snatches food from the hands of two nonplussed divines.
Even the reworking of the scene with the personified Seven Deadly Sins into a kind of dumb show feels pretty true to the spirit of the age – I had to look back into the text to recall that the members of Marlowe’s septet make speeches instead.
Thankfully the adapters have left much of the serious side of the text intact, since that’s the part told in Marlowe’s unforgettable iambic pentameter. (“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”). An appropriately goateed Noth has a firm grasp of Faustus’ lust for glory and internal struggle between evil and repentance, though at times the actor is a little too soft-spoken. Towards the end, aided by the atmospherics of simple but evocative lighting and sound effects, he is very fine at conveying how struck Faustus is by the emptiness of the worldly power and glory for which he has made his fateful deal.
Exceptional is Zach Grenier, who with his trademark wit and dry delivery gives us a loathsome Mephistopheles with whom we can nevertheless sympathize. Grenier, who was so good in Hamish Linklater’s The Vandal in 2013, is the kind of actor who can make serious (or seriously humorous) business out of just about any line, even down to an exit line like “I go.” In world-weary demonic mode he is a real treat.
As Faustus’s clever servant Wagner, Walker Jones also provides the Chorus’s introductory address to the audience and then bits of running narration. It’s an effective technique in such a stylized and funny production, the asides and commentary reminding me somehow of Mel Brooks movie. Lucas Caleb Rooney and Ken Cheeseman mine comic gold as the scheming Robin and the buffoonish Dick respectively, and Marina Lazzaretto turns Lust into a literal floor-show. They and other cast members slip easily in and out of multiple roles.
If the production has one main flaw it’s that in the context of its whole dramatic arc, it flies too fast over Faustus’s continent-wide career as a sorcerer to kings and emperors. Alexander the Great appears in the flesh, and Helen of Troy glides across the stage in all her beauty and finery (to reappear later in a scene that would have surprised Marlowe’s contemporaries). But this important element of the play’s second half feels too abbreviated.
Nonetheless I imagine that Marlowe would appreciate much if not all of what the adapters have done, for they have told his story with gravitas along with plenty of humor both high and low – and mostly low. This enjoyable Doctor Faustus runs through July 12 at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, NYC. Get tickets online or call 866-811-4111.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0199537062][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0140436332][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B004UJB19G][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00CYQXGMW][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00H8KC1OS]