PROVO — After seeing The Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s production of Doctor Faustus, I am kicking myself for not seeing everything they have done in the past, and you can bet I won’t miss a future show. Doctor Faustus is truly a must-see for the Halloween season—the most fitting for this time of year with such a famous tragedy.
In the past, Grassroots Shakespeare Company has solely performed Shakespearean works. However Doctor Faustus was not written by William Shakespeare but by his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, making this Grassroots’s non-Shakespeare debut. But, the choice still fits with Grassroots’s mission because Marlowe greatly influenced the Bard. On top of a great choice for the season the venue of the Castle Amphitheatre behind the state mental hospital was perfect for the story of the battle for one’s soul.
The play follows the respected scholar and scientist, Doctor Faustus, as he has become unsatisfied with his studies and decides to try his hand in the black arts. He catches on to the dark arts quickly and conjures up Mephistopheles, a servant of the Devil. Despite warnings signs, Faustus makes a deal with Lucifer himself: Faustus’s soul in exchange for twenty-four years servitude from Mephistopheles. Armed with this servant of darkness, Faustus battles the dichotomy in his mind and enjoys the ensuing years ending with… well, let’s just say, you’d be surprised.
As the show opens, the entire company explains what it means to be an “original practices,” company which was fun and impressive as they talked about not having a director, designers, or short rehearsal time. The actors also invited the to shout out approval and disgust at the characters’ decisions. At first this made me very anxious and uncomfortable, however the actors tenderly handled each shout out with care for both the audience as well as the script. This would have been a mess if they hadn’t so often spoken Marlowe’s words with such a modern sarcasm that when retorts were made to an audience member, it didn’t feel like they broke the spell of such a classical work.
Mephistopheles (Shawn Saunders) was ultimately my favorite character because he was a sympathetic devil. Saunders delicately showed his character’s own tortured soul dealing with his own shoulder angels of stopping Faustus and adding misery to his own company. These struggles were subtle, but still apparent in Saunders’s expressions in response to Faustus’s desires to make a deal with the Lucifer. As played by Saundres, Mephistopheles is the friend your mother never wanted you to have, and he openly admits this, which is eerie.
Faustus (Eric David Geels) was a very animated, fast talking and arrogant Doctor who I felt very little for, but who spoke with such eloquence and passion that I didn’t care if the tragic hero was less of a hero and just entirely tragic. In his opening monologues expressing his boredom with his studies I found myself completely in agreement with Faustus’s decision to study magic and drop the boring stuff. Because of Geels, I was entertained enough to follow as a friend down the very same path that Faustus did.
I found myself seeing this play as not so much the story of Doctor Faustus but instead of two best friends—Faustus and Mephistopheles—and their path to Hell. Their interactions were such stuff of two school mates even to the extent that they had a secret hand shake by the end. I wanted to love this choice as it exemplified their naivety in which both of them got into their situations, but part of me was distracted by its blatant youthfulness. There were characters that were created to add levity to such a dark story of Hell, were hit and miss.
The show contained a lot more clowns than I expected, as almost all of the characters except Lucifer himself and the angels have comic moments. I am not sure if this was Marlowe’s intention, but it made the play less of a straight tragedy. Faustus’s friends that introduced him to magic, Cornelius (Amos Omer) and Valdez (Maddy Forsyth), had a Waiting for Godot feel about them, and between the on-and-off German accent that Valdez sported and some poorly times jokes by Cornelius the two looked like the town fools and not scholars. And the Duchess (also Maddy Forsyth) in full term pregnancy came on with a long cigarette but then, in a case of an actor forgetting one’s props, continued to “burn” her face and her belly repeatedly with her cigarette.
The real clowns were Faustus’s servant Wagner (Joshua Michael French), Wagner’s servant Robin (Greg Larsen). Larsen shone particularly in quite a few of their shenanigans when Robin’s tomfoolery got him in trouble, and Larsen nailed his physical comedy bringing me to laughter before he even spoke. When Robin ran into the bartender after his last encounter of stealing from her and he still owed her money, Larsen held a dazzling awkwardness on stage that held for the entire scene.
Most of the actors played many characters and in doing so had to hold separately these characters very carefully, the last two shout outs that need to be given is the Kaitlyn Dahl as the Good Angel and Amber Dodge. From the first moment the Good Angel pleads with Faustus to repent I could see the deep care and concern from her throughout her entire body. It was nice to see the Good Angel undistracted by the loud laughter from everyone else in Faustus’s life or the constant times he chooses the opposite path. Dodge had such intricate differences in her characters that although her costumes changed the least dramatically I believed in anyone she became. In maybe one of her quickest changes she went from Helen of Troy to a scholar, and she completed the transition of characters flawlessly.
The mark of a great lighting and sound design is doing it and not being noticed; the musicians for this show were brilliant. The music was perfectly eerie and each character had clever themes that played on stage with them that I almost missed them because they were so subtle and perfect. A fine example of this was when Faustus demands that Mephistopheles conjure him a wife, and in response a she-devil twists about on stage and Faustus cries in disgust as a quiet and twisted version of the wedding march was played.
Although I laughed more than I was concerned for the soul of Doctor Faustus, I enjoyed the jovial twist on this dark classic and combined with the absolute perfect location for this production I would recommend that you do not miss this show.