by: JK Clarke
Early in Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan morality tale, Doctor Faustus, an ominous event takes place. As the narcissistic title character is slicing his arm in order to make a blood pact with Lucifer, the foreboding Latin words “Homo fuge!” appear in divine script around the suddenly healing wound. “Flee, man!” is the urging, and there could not be a better warning to anyone considering attending Classic Stage Company’s new adaptation of Doctor Faustus. Though the original play, like most of Marlowe’s work, tends to be preachy and operatic (though potentially compelling), this version, adapted by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader (who also directs) is comedic, vaudevillian and generally without purpose.
The fundamental difference between Marlowe and his better known contemporary, William Shakespeare, is that Marlowe was an intellectual: a university educated playwright noted for his contribution of blank verse to period theater. His plays tend to feature outsized characters and grandiose themes. Shakespeare, on the other hand, was more a commoner (without much education at all) who wrote about people and ideas more immediately relatable to the Everyman, which is likely a significant reason his plays are more widely performed and better known today.
In an apparent attempt to broaden the appeal of Doctor Faustus, Belgrader has brought us a Faustus with its comic elements amped up so high that the main thrust of the story—that of a man who is extremely intelligent and successful and yet wants so much more that he strikes a deal with the devil (a “Faustian Bargain”) to gain magic powers and invincibility—is completely swept away in slapstick antics and lifeless dialog.
While not at all the case here, many productions use the supernatural aspects of play for extravagant theatrics and costuming. The set (Tony Straiges) and costumes (Rita Ryack and Martin Schnellinger) instead provide an overall feeling of guignol. One half expects a Punch & Judy performance to break out at some point – which seems to be supported by the text edits and the direction. Maybe it’s not such a terrible idea to lighten the play’s mood, but in this case the edits feel like a mockery of the story itself. Consequently, the cast seems lost and bored with the production, which inexplicably features several moments of audience participation, most of which is neither desired nor appreciated. When the actors break the fourth wall it elicits mostly uncomfortable laughs and awkward attempts at avoiding eye contact.
Faustus is played by Chris Noth, best known for playing Big, Carrie’s rich, handsome, elusive love interest in HBO’s Sex in the City, a role for which he is perfectly suited. But Noth is out of his depth in Elizabethan theater. His performance is wooden and difficult to watch; and his lines, though recited evenly, seem to have no real meaning for him. As Mephistopheles, the Devil’s early agent, Zach Grenier does his best to rescue the play. His comic timing is delightful, though at times his eyes betray a lassitude that could be ascribed to either the character or the actor. Ken Cheeseman, as Dick, plays off of Walker Jones’ scheming Wagner (Faustus’ equal corrupt servant), quite delightfully, though how many dick jokes (which feel as gratuitous as a rather prolonged episode of female nudity) can one tolerate in a 16th century play?
Though it would normally seem only fair to give a play a fighting chance, in this instance it’s not. It will surely attract a large number of fans looking to see “Big” on stage, and they are likely to walk away disappointed and bewildered. On the other hand, perhaps in the intervening time since I saw the play prior to opening night some substantial changes and improvements have been made. Who knows? Maybe they’ve made a deal with the Devil.
Doctor Faustus. Through July 12 at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues). www.classicstage.org