A smart man makes a really bad bargain

Faustus makes his famous life and death deal with Lucifer that he will have lower-down devil Mephistopheles as his servant, to fulfill all his wishes, but he’s already been warned: Lucifer is Mephistopheles’ true master.  Ultimately not even a devil can serve two masters.

Still, there are quite a number of tricks Faustus and Mephistopheles can pull off, and it’s a great deal of fun, and thought-provoking, to see them at it!

The engine that sets things going it Faustus’ disappointment with the limits of academic learning.  As a scholar, he’s diligently made his way through all the disciplines – Renaissance disciplines – and each and every one has let him down.  He found that Logic is useful for arguing but doesn’t lead to truth. Medicine has developed to be successful in curing many illnesses but it cannot cure death — shades of Sophocles who says much the same thing in Antigone.  The problem with Law, which Faustus also dismisses, is clear to him (though I found it vague).

And as for Divinity, all humans commit sin and sin is punishable by death so — what’s the point?  “What doctrine call you this?” he exclaims. “Que sera sera.”  This clues you in that the play takes up the topic of Calvinist pre-destination vs. free will, a central topic in Marlowe’s time (though we don’t find out where Marlowe truly stands).

Disillusioned by academic learning, Faustus turns to magic and, with a circle and incantation, conjures up Lucifer and a parcel of devils.  Heady with excitement, Faustus renounces his baptism and makes his bargain:  he’ll have Mephistopheles as his servant to fulfill his will for twenty-four years, contingent on what Lucifer and God allow, and at the end, his soul will be turned over to Lucifer and eternal damnation.

He readily sets aside his early quest for truth after Mephistopheles throws in some pseudo scientific but negative sounding double-talk.  He doesn’t put up a fuss when he learns he can’t marry because marriage is a holy sacrament and he’s given up on his baptism — he’ll be happy enough with prostitutes.  He gets plenty of warnings from scholars, angels, and a terrific show that Mephistopheles puts on for him in which the Seven Deadly — and unappealing looking — Sins are paraded before his eyes, and ours. Occasionally Faustus has some misgivings, should he repent?  Can he repent?  But never mind — he throws his magical powers into entertaining himself with women and with practical jokes.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, if I had those powers I’d … complete the sentence with whatever the individual feels is particularly worthy.

It’s interesting to think of Shakespeare’s Prospero, a theatrical magician of the same time — Prospero used his magical powers to help those he loved, to make things come out right for human beings — and spirits, too.  Faustus is totally self-involved.

Still, though Faustus isn’t admirable, he’s lovable, or at least charismatic, because of the appeal of a character who gives up everything for what he wants, and also because, joining him on his adventures, we have such a good time.

Not all the scenes in this production live up to Marlowe’s free-flowing inventiveness. The parade of the Seven Deadly Sins is flat, though livened up with some enjoyable audience participation.  Still, the visualization of the individual sins lacked imagination — especially compared with other fantastic evocations I’ve seen at Classic Stage.

On the other hand, the trip to Rome where, turning himself invisible, Faustus does some tomfoolery at the expense of the Pope has breadth and vision in evoking an overview of Rome with puppets and flight and visual jokes.  The total irreverence towards the Pope brought to mind the negative view of the Cardinal as a hypocrite in a nearly contemporary play, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, that I saw recently. Both plays ask searching questions that touch on religion, but both English playwrights share the certainty that Catholic Rome doesn’t hold answers.

The most breathtaking sequence in this production is the love scene between Faustus and Helen of Troy whom Faustus conjures up. Marina Lazzaretto is stunningly trim and elegantly nude as Helen: she expresses Helen’s essential nature, both available and impossible to possess. Here is one of the most essential, ungratuitous nudity I’ve ever seen in theater.  It’s Chris Noth’s best scene¸ too, and he fully expresses Marlowe’s unsurpassed love poetry.  It’s nothing less than perfect.

One’s always curious to see an actor much enjoyed on TV in a play.  Chris Noth works energetically at the role of Faustus:  I don’t think he’d win the role in open casting (and Classic Stage has in my view somewhat lost its way in focusing on big name actors), but he expresses himself forcefully and clearly, though not with the character’s full resonance.

In the comic counterpoint to Faustus’ ambiguous master-servant relationship with Mephistopheles, Walker Jones is delightful as Faustus’ servant, Wagner and Ken Cheeseman is hilarious and with great timing as the servant’s “servant,” Dick.  I was part of the audience that got into “audience participation” when Cheeseman (here in the guise of a sort of zombie) came at me – that was fun.

This play frees the imagination:  and this production of Doctor Faustus led me to imagine that there could be an even more playful, surprising, imaginatively free production, but this was well done, a fascinating play on a fundamental theme, great to see.  Marlowe creates a world: I was sorry when the play was over, and it continues to illuminate my mind.

Doctor Faustus, directed by Andrei Belgrader, plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through July 12, 2015 .