Theater Review - Dr. Faustus

Don Hall

"So. Human to human. I apologize. I've left my story to self-indulgent scribblers. Yes, I've read the books and seen the plays, the movies, the operas. Bogus. Every word. I'm sorry." -- John Faustus (via Mickle Maher)

The story of Faustus centers on a low-born but self made man who makes a pact with the Devil - he is to be allotted twenty-four years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephistopheles as his personal servant. At the end he will give his soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one damned to Hell. Originally put to paper by the Shakespearean contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, and based on a German legend, the story has been re-written and re-interpreted countless times in plays, books, music, poems, puppet plays, etc.

And Mickle Maher deems himself worthy to add to the repertoire.

Well, I'm here to say that he is worthy.

Where to start?

Once again, the Chopin Theatre re-establishes itself as one of the truly authentic Off Loop theater venues of note. Upstairs Friday night was Hell in a Handbag's remount of Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical in all it's glitzy, fabulous glory; down below, in the cavernous Studio, was the polar opposite - an empty space, filled with chairs on either side of a long stretch, two chairs for the two actors, three lamps, and a door. As we waited for the house to open, I got to chat it up with Kerry Reid and Nina Metz, say hello to Guy Massey, HB Ward, Greg Allen - at one point, Kerry commented that if a bomb went off in the Chopin that night, a third of Chicago Off Loop theater would go with it.

And then we sit. And we look at each other - sitting across from other audience members creates a tension, a silent conspiracy, as we look over each other to see who has come tonight, who are we sharing the experience with? And then we notice David Shapiro sitting on the far side of the room, silent and unmoving. His presence, and lack of acknowledgement of us is a bit creepy and the tension mounts in tiny increments. And then Colm O'Reilly enters the space. And the play is afoot.

O'Reilly pulls off an amazing performance. Resembling a young Orson Welles in demeanor and quality, his Faustus is an irritated, whiny, arrogant - he explains to us that he is irritated and annoyed like so many others but that he has reasons. And we are there to hear them. Maher's play is at times maddeningly profound, silly, funny, angry, illogical, and as interpreted by the musical vocalizations of O'Reilly, completely mesmerizing. He sets us up and denies our expectation; he tells us of his mundane final day with the Prince of Lies at the foot of his bed; he rails and spits, composes himself and explains.

All the while, Shapiro sits. Calmly detached but remarkably aware of the irony of everything being said. His Mephistopheles says as much as O'Reilly's Faustus without uttering a syllable (although Faustus gives the character a distinctive quasi-Karloff vocalization that seems both ridiculous and completely believable - I'm not sure how he pulls this off, but he does.)

Another subtle but exceptional touch that O'Reilly brings to the proceedings is that he is very aware of the play going on above him - rumbling and bumping, the musical overhead manages to add a strange creepiness and is all due to O'Reilly's use of the accidental soundscape to inform pauses and looks above, as if these sounds are harbinger's of his own demise.

An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Dr. John Faustus on this His Final Evening owes its existence to Marlowe, Thomas Mann, the one man Mark Twain shows, Dostoevsky, and the genre of historical fiction that takes actual historical legends and places them in modern times. It is dense and thick, smarter than most, and sillier than you think it will be. And its funny. It will stick to the bones in your skull for a longer time than most plays and deserves your attention.

Do yourself a favor. Go see this and bring that friend of yours that simply has no use for fringe theater. This is one of those exceptional things that can make the doubter of storefront theater a convert.