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Doctor Faustus, or The Modern Prometheus
by John Wolbers… and Kit Marlowe
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
SATE Ensemble Theatre
November 8, 2018

Joe Hanrahan, Ashley Bauman, Talessha Caturah, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

There’s a whole lot of “Faust” happening in St. Louis this year. The collaborative FAUSTival is continuing this month, and now it’s SATE’s turn to offer their own approach to this legendary tale. This is the fourth entry in the series, and if you thought you might start feeling a little bit of “Faust” fatigue by this point, there’s no need to worry, as SATE’s take on the oft-told tale is bold, fresh, challenging, and thoroughly compelling.

With this production, playwright John Wolbers takes Christopher (Kit) Marlowe’s version of the story and significantly tweaks it to give it a modern spin. The title character is now a woman (Ashley Baumann), and although the play is still in verse and uses Early Modern English and Elizabethan-inspired costumes for the most part, the setting is modern, with present-day cultural references included, and modern issues–or actually, age-old issues in the context of how they have manifested in modern times. The story emphasizes the temptation of Faustus and her relationships with those close to her, especially her college boyfriend Wagner (Michael Pierce) and roommate Val (Lex Ronan), as well as her business role model and mentor Carol Hapsburg (Taleesha Caturah). There’s also the various incarnations of Mephistophilis, the demon who is supposed to serve her after she makes a pact with the devil. Mephistophilis is played in turn by almost all of the remaining cast members in the show, with the exception of Nicole Angeli, who plays “The Seven”, a personification of the Seven Deadly Sins, which play a major role in Faustus’s journey of temptation and ascent to power. The play incisively deals with important issues such as the struggles for equality of women in academia and business, as well as sexual harassment, the corruption of power, and more.

Although it takes a few minutes to really get going, it soon becomes a riveting drama, with impressive performances all around. Bauman’s Faustus goes on a credible emotional journey, and her initial idealism and growing sense of ambition are well portrayed. There’s strong chemistry between her and Pierce as the devoted but eventually disillusioned Wagner and also with Ronan as her close friend, the also idealistic and magically curious Val. Ronan is also strong in her role as legendary mythological Helen of Troy and one of the incarnations of Mephistophilis. There’s also a strong performances from Caturah in three roles, including the original version of the crafty Mephistophilis, as well as the authoritavie Hapsburg and, in a memorable scene, as an elderly lady who makes an impression on Faustus. Joe Hanrahan, as a smarmy college professor and the second Mephistophilus, and Erik Kuhn and Kareem Deanes in multiple roles are also excellent. Special mention needs to go to Angeli, who deftly shifts back and forth between seven distinct personalities as The Seven. It’s a dynamic, impressive, chilling, and thoroughly memorable performance that stands out in an already excellent ensemble.

The technical aspects of this show don’t fail to impress, either. Bess Moynihan’s set is distinctive, as a series of seven columns–decorated to represent the Deadly Sins–serve as an effective backdrop for the action. The lighting design by Dominick Ehling coordinates well with the set and with the acting in a clever way that I won’t spoil here, but will make itself apparent as the story plays out. There’s also excellent use of sound, designed by Kareem Deanes, and vividly realized modern-Elizabethan fusion-style costumes by Liz Henning.

This is a Doctor Faustus for the ages, both ancient and modern, employing some modern sensibilities to communicate timeless truths about the human condition, ambition, and temptation as well as the importance of empathy and compassion. It’s another excellent FAUSTival presentation, serving also in various ways to point out the common themes the various productions have had, beyond the fact that they’re all about Faust in their own unique ways. In this production, SATE continues to challenge, impress, and provoke much thought. It’s another strong production from this excellent company.

Cast of Doctor Faustus
Photo by Anne Genovese
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Doctor Faustus, or The Modern Prometheus at The Chapel until November 17, 2018

 

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AN APOLOGY For the Course And Outcome of Certain Events Delivered By DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS On This HIs Final Evening
and The Hunchback Variations
By Mickle Maher
The Midnight Company
September 21, 2018

It’s FAUSTival part 2! As the latest entry in the extended “festival” featuring works from various local theatre companies, Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company is presenting something that’s appropriately Faustian and also reflective of the Midnight Company’s offbeat style. And, also as is usual for this company, the result is well-cast, thoughtful, and fascinating.

A revival of a production staged a few years ago, this is a set of two separate one-act pieces, one of which is a “Faust” tale. Both, however, are somewhat metaphysical explorations of concepts and characters. AN APOLOGY… is, essential, just what the title says. Here, Hanrahan plays Dr. John Faustus on the last day of his life on earth, having agreed to sell his soul 20 years earlier to Mephistopheles (David Wassilak), who spends most of the play looming in the background, clad in black velvet and wearing sunglasses and appearing somewhat bored of Faustus’s whole spiel. For Faustus’s part, he’s in regret mode, as well as desperate to hold on to a semblance of privacy as he recounts his efforts to keep some privacy from Mephistopheles, who as part of the agreement has lived as Faustus’s servant for the past 20 years, a constant, annoying presence and reminder of Faustus’s pride and rashness. The casting here is strong, with Wassilak’s presence being suitably menacing by just sitting there most of the time, and Hanrahan’s Faustus being increasingly desperate and grasping for some sort of meaning in his life that’s about to end in moments. Since it’s essentially a long speech with a few brief interruptions by Mephistopheles, it does tend to get rambling and a little hard to follow at times, although Hanrahan’s presence keeps it interesting, as do some clever immersive elements involving Faustus handing out beer and chips to the audience.  It’s a particularly philosphical and condensed take on the “Faust” story, with more of an introspective focus as Faust tries to gain the audience’s sympathy.

While An Apology… certainly has its moments, especially in terms of its exploration of language and the concept of time and the overall brevity of life, the more entertaining piece of the evening is the more fast-moving, comic seminar-styled The Hunchback Variations. Here, there’s much more of a focus on humor, and the situation is even more bizarre than it is in the first play.  Here, the audience is given an imaginary scenario in which composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (Hanrahan) and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame character, Quasimodo (Wassilak) are seated at a table littered with various offbeat musical instruments (kazoo, tin whistle, etc.) and are giving a lecture recounting their efforts to identify an elusive sound described in a stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. The show is essentially a series of vignettes, with similar staging and introduction, as the two, usually led by the more outwardly confident Beethoven, recount their efforts to meet and discover this mysterious sound, as the more sullen, earnest Quasimodo plays various sounds and expresses more of an initially pessimistic outlook about their meetings. This is a fascinating play on many levels–first, it’s hilarious, and the comic timing is impeccable. Second, it’s also kind of sad, as we see the futility and failure of the endeavor as they recount attempt after attempt with the big unasked question lingering in the air–what’s the point? The interplay between these two characters presents their relationship as sometimes companions in futility, sometimes frenemies. It’s an intriguing dynamic to watch, and both players play their parts extremely well, from Hanrahan’s bossy, overconfident Beethoven to Wassilak’s gruff-voiced, weary but still hopeful Quasimodo.

Both of these plays are presented in a small backroom at the Monocle bar in the Grove neighborhood, and the intimate setting adds to the mood in both plays. This is a thoughtful, sometimes funny, somtimes profound, always unusual production, showcasing two excellent local actors. It’s a worthwhile theatrical experience.

The Midnight Company is presenting AN APOLOGY and The Hunchback Variations at the Monocle until September 29, 2018

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