It's now the Halloween season, and all over Austin, theaters are rolling out their spookiest tricks and treats. While Last Act Theatre's current production of DOCTOR FAUSTUS may not be the scariest or spookiest, it certainly is worth seeing for its brilliant direction and strong performances.
DOCTOR FAUSTUS, written in the late 1500s by Christopher Marlowe and directed/adapted here by Kevin Gates, tells the tale of a disillusioned academic who, having learned all there is to learn in all traditional pursuits so he turns to magic and summons a devil, Mephistopholes. Faust signs a deal with Mephistopholes's master, Lucifer himself, to relinquish his soul in 24 years in return for unlimited power and the use of Mephistopholes as his personal servant. If the whole idea of someone making a deal with the devil sounds familiar, that's because it is. Many other works, such as THE LITTLE MERMAID, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, DAMN YANKEES, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray,and even the new television drama 666 PARK AVENUE owe much to Marlowe's DOCTOR FAUSTUS.
As most classic, Elizabethan plays do, DOCTOR FAUSTUS poses some problems for modern audiences and performers. The text is long and wordy, and the countless soliloquies do not allow for much action or movement in the piece. Director Kevin Gates has brilliantly solved many of these problems. He turns many of Faustus's soliloquies and monologues into dialogues with a chorus of devils (Travis Bedard, Sara Billeaux, Trevor Bissell, Molly McKee, Mallory Larson, Trey Palmer, Elena Weinberg, and Bradley Wright), and though the devils are usually positioned along the outer perimeter of the state, Gates allows the actors to move whenever possible. The chorus members, who also portray most of the incidental characters which Faustus encounters, all have moments where they excel. Still some of them, at times, perform a bit too big and loud for the intimate 25-seat space. It's worth noting that this production was intended for an outdoor venue, and in an outdoor venue where sound could not reverberate off the walls, these larger-than-life moments would not seem nearly as big or out of place. However, as the production continues, I'm sure this is one small problem that can be fixed.
Gates also brilliantly casts a beautiful woman (Karen Alvarado) as Mephistopholes, a role traditionally played by a man. Ms. Alvarado is a stand-out of this stellar cast. She plays Mephistopholes with a quiet intensity. She is sexy, seductive, and mysterious. While there is sexual tension between her and Faustus, it's never clear if Mephistopholes is attracted to Faustus or is simply manipulating him, and Alvarado uses that ambiguity to her advantage.
Equally strong is Ben McLemore as Faustus. Mr. McLemore plays the whole dramatic arc of his character to great effect. He is bored and tired in his opening scene, delighted and gleeful as he pulls pranks and practical jokes on everyone from peasant to Pope with the help of Mephistopholes, and fearful and uneasy about his eminent demise as the end of his contract with Lucifer draws near. And rounding out the cast are Mario Silva as Faustus's servant and Robert St. Evans and Tony Salinas as Robin and Dick respectively, both of whom provide the piece with some welcome comedy relief.
The design team here has kept their work to a minimum, focusing the piece of the story, language, and performances rather than spectacle. Haydee Antunano's costumes are modest but effective, and Doug Mackie's set and lighting design features a few simple black drapes, wooden crates, and some bright white lights. My only complaint about the design work is that a piece about a deal with the devil can always benefit from some darker lighting, shadows, buckets of stage blood, and smoke and mirrors. I'm not saying this production would benefit from incorporating all of these tricks, but the careful application of some of these tools could add to the fun.
While it may have moments where certain performers push a bit harder than they need to, overall DOCTOR FAUSTUS is a delight. While the Last Act Theatre's production may be a bit more modern and edgy than one may expect with an Elizabethan classic, it's just what the doctor ordered.