Review: Hell-Bent Faustus Fails to Ignite

Posted by Wayves volunteer 2/03/2014

  Doctor Faustus (Pasha Ebrahimi) hears voices!  (Sarah-Jean Begin and Leah Pritchard)

By Hugo Dann, Drama Queen

Author’s Note: Doctor Faustus closed this afternoon, so this is less a review than a rant. In the interest of full disclosure, I disliked the production to the extent that I could not sit through it, and I left at intermission.

No doubt we live in a secular age. Yet we flock to classic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. I know nothing about the religious or spiritual lives of Roman Polanski, Richard Donner, or William Friedkin, but I certainly know that as filmmakers they took the artistic challenge of telling these stories very seriously indeed.

Wth their depictions of the cosmic struggle between God and the Devil, these films tap into residual religious sentiments and the darkest realms of our unconscious. We cower in darkened theatres, freely suspending our scientific disbelief for the atavistc thrill of fear and the lingering possibility these ineluctable powers somehow give meaning to our life and reason to our world. This is a world the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe fully understood. It is the world of his play Doctor Faustus.

Early on, the titular scholar in Doctor Faustus conjures the devil Mephostophilis, quizzing them about their nature and that of Hell:

FAUSTUS: And What are you that live with Lucifer?

MEPHISTOPHILIS: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,

Conspir’d against our God with Lucifer,

And are forever damn’d with Lucifer.

FAUSTUS: Where are you damn’d?

MEPHITOPHILIS: In Hell.

FAUSTUS: How comes it then that you are out of Hell?

MEPHISTOPHILIS: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells

In being deprived of everlasting bliss?".

These metaphysical dialogues between Faustus and his demon appear throughout, and Faustus frequently vacillates between repentance and temptation. These spiritual struggles are contrasted with scenes of dark and ribald comedy. This sharp juxtaposition and alteration between genres puzzled scholars for ages, to the point where it is only recently that critics believe that Marlowe was even their author. It is one of his great legacies to the theatre.

Marlowe covered a lot of ground in his short life. Born in 1564 (same year as Shakespeare); Cambridge scholar, poet; translator; playwright; spy, he knew a lot (we think) about the seamier side of life. Some of the clown scenes in Doctor Faustus might suggest the author’s familiarity with male prostitutes and the men who employ them. He was killed when he was just 29, in a bar fight under highly suspicious circumstances.

Vile Passéist Theatre's production of Doctor Faustus, closing this afternoon at The Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax has a very big problem, one that, for me, made it all but unwatchable:  they do not appear to have taken the play, —not its tragedy, not its comedy, nor its bleak spirituality, at all seriously. The heightened text of the tragic scenes was rendered at breakneck speed with little variation in tempo, while the comic scenes were so slow and weighed down with mimetic gesture they were hard to follow (if comedy is hard, Elizabethan comedy is really, really hard!).

Of course none of the actors are to be blamed; all credit, for good or ill,  must rest on the shoulders of Co-Directors Rhys Bevan-John and Ailsa Galbreath. If there was any coherent interpretation here, in style and in production, it escaped me.

Indeed, there are a number of talented people in the cast, but, with one exception, no one fares well here. Some actors seemed to have only the most general understanding of what their lines actually meant.

Only Pasha Ebrahimi in the title role seemed to be genuinely trying to act the play that Marlowe wrote. Mr. Ebrahimi is gifted with one of the most beautiful voices in the Halifax theatre and it was a lovely respite to close one’s eyes and listen to him. Yet, if he was ever in danger of being mistaken for taking the play seriously, the production swept in to undermine him.

For example, two angels, the good and bad voices of Faustus’ conscience, regularly visit him. In this production, they were portrayed by two doll-puppets (see photo above, Ed.). When they first appeared, I sat up, thinking, “Kids’ toys, how interesting and how horror movie!”

However the choice was made to have them speak in such Bugs Bunny fashion that the audience laughed every time they appeared. Having neither grace nor menace, they rendered Marlowe’s lines not just inaudible, but irrelevant. While they  garnered a laugh or two, their ludicrous and constant reappearance abolished the tension in each scene and Mr. Ebrahimi was left struggling to get it back. So directorial flourishes that might have been bold and illuminating were self-sabotaged by a kind of ironic commentary.

Christopher Marlowe, was, and remains, a figure of controversy and conjecture. We know a lot more of what other people said of him than what he said of himself. He was reputed to have been an atheist in an era where that was a capital offense. "St. John was Christ's bedfellow," he is supposed to have said. "And lay always upon his breast and used him as the sinners of Sodom."

He is also said to have been queer. Remarks such as, "All men that love not Tobacco and boys are fools,” were attributed to him. Of course, such statements may have been slanders put out by rivals or enemies to discredit him. However, his play Edward II depicts an overtly homosexual relationship between the King and his lover, Gaveston. His poetry also portrays homosexual love.

In the 1960s, Pier Paolo Pasolini, atheist, communist, queer, filmmaker, made a compelling depiction of the life of Christ with his landmark film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Pasolini didn’t judge his story, he just told it. And yet both his queer and political sensibilities pulse through every frame in his beautiful film.

Surely, even in this secular age, playing a play for how it’s written is not impossible, or even limiting? Surely both queer and existential readings of the play, with Devils and Angels at war, can be attempted and still be true to Marlowe’s text? The Co-Directors of this Doctor Faustus seemed to get excited only when they were laughing at the play.

The mandate of Vile Passéist is to produce the works of Elizabethan and Jacobean authors other than Shakespeare. This is the second production of theirs that I have seen; the second that seemed unwilling to engage the material on its own terms.

I know many of the artists involved and believe them to be thoughtful and well intentioned. In fairness I should note that some audience members at both productions found them amusing.

Yet I’m at loss to understand their practice. It may be very old-fashioned of me, but I question how apparently mocking a play, although doubtless very cool and post-post-post, is the right path to successfully realizing that play on the stage.

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