Mark Jackson (left) is Faust and Peter Ruocco is Mephistopheles in Jackson’s adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, Part 1, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Photos by Jessica Palopoli
Will Faust ever learn? Deal with the devil and you’re gonna get burned
The devil’s curse, it turns out, is a deep understanding of human nature.
In Mark Jackson’s dazzling Faust, Part 1, a Shotgun Players production now at the Ashby Stage, all magical Mr. Mephistopheles has to do is recognize the vanity, ego, intellectual curiosity and burning desire in a person, give them permission to be fully human, then sit back and watch the destruction begin.
Jackson’s free adaptation of the Goethe play clocks in at just under two hours (with no intermission), and, happily, it’s a challenge. This is a disciplined, intentional piece of theater awash in rigorous direction (by Jackson and Kevin Clarke), a simple but aesthetically astute production and a script that crackles with poetry, comedy and terror.
The first 45 minutes of the show take place in front of a prison-like gate. Faust (Jackson), a genius shut up in the hallowed halls of learning, longs to divorce himself from scholarship and dusty books and fawning students. Having worked with his benevolent father to cure the plague, Faust is now revered and, consequently, bored out of his impressive mind.
“Night after night I shot dreams up my sleeves and found they were just poppies,” Faust says. He’s so bored he’s challenging God’s existence and questioning man’s need to yield to God.
His disdain for his co-workers (represented by Phil Lowery) and his students (Dara Yazdani) leads him to action and, ultimately, to keep company with the devil.
Peter Ruocco as Mephistopheles is the very picture of calm. There’s no devilish leering, no sinister cackling – there’s not even any red clothing (costumer Clarke gives him a simple, dark blue smock with side pockets, where this smooth devil casually rests his hands). It’s fun to watch Mephistopheles continually puncture Faust’s intellectual pomposity and urge him into a slave-trading deal on the soul level.
It doesn’t take much for Faust to agree, and when the giant gates of Nina Ball’s set slide open, the stage reveals an idyllic birch grove (beautifully lit by Joan Arhelger) just outside a small village.
Flush with the sensory joys of being among flesh-and-blood people (as opposed to academics), Faust immediately falls for a beautiful young woman named Gretchen (Blythe Foster, above with Ruocco) and implores the devil to help him woo her.
The young woman successfully wooed, Faust pledges his eternal love and then wants to move on to other pleasures. But the devil won’t allow that. Faust has toyed with this innocent woman’s affections and must do the responsible thing and stay with her.
That, of course, leads to no good. Faust’s sense of responsibility cannot keep pace with his desires, and he leaves behind him a wake of destruction involving Gretchen, her wheelchair-bound mother (Zehra Berkman) and her soldier brother (Yazdani).
The blood and violence reach an operatic pitch (the sound design, which includes what sounds like Lou Reed singing “This Magic Moment,” is by Matt Stines), and Part 1 leaves us wondering if Faust – indeed any of us – can ever fully learn from the self-involved, soul-killing mistakes we make over and over. The answer seems to be: sorry, nope, not even close.
The play’s best scene – and the play is full of sharply etched, verbally dexterous scenes – begins as a tender scene between Faust and Gretchen. In their embrace, she looks up at him and asks, “Do you believe in God?” Such a simple question from a truly pious person. Faust delivers an academically impressive answer, dodging the question and answering it at the same time – affirming his cleverness, skirting his non-belief and disguising it so as not to upset his main squeeze. But she won’t have it. She asks again. And again. And again. Each time, he delivers the same essay-like answer, but with increasing anger and despair.
Jackson’s performance is virtuoso, but Foster is right there with him, her expressive, pained face pulling powerful emotion through the verbiage.
Ruocco’s challenge as the devil is to be restrained and powerful at the same time, and he manages this feat with aplomb. He’s charismatic with a deep well of seen-it-all-before sadness. This devil seems to derive no pleasure in watching humankind bedevil itself.
Last time we had an original spin on the Faust legend was about five years ago when the Magic Theatre presented David Mamet directing his own Doctor Faustus. Give me the loose ends and muscular poetry of Jackson any day over Mamet’s dull posturing. Jackson’s devil is the real deal.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Shotgun Players’ Faust, Part 1 continues through June 28 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $18-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org for information.
Director/playwright/actor Mark Jackson is an alum of San Francisco State’s Theatre Arts program, and he continues to work there as a guest artist. For his latest foray with Shotgun Players (after The Death of Meyerhold, The Forest War and Macbeth), Jackson brings with him and impressive cast and crew with SFSU ties: Professor Joan Arhelger is the production’s lighting designer and alum Nina Ball is the set designer. Current students involved in Faust, Part 1 are Dara Yazdani (actor), Matt Stines (sound designer), Michelle Smith (stage manager), Ashley Costa (sound board operator/assistant stage manager) and Krista Smith (lighting assistant). For more about the Department of Theatre Arts visit http://theatre.sfsu.edu/.