Faust Things First

Bilingual, time-jumping, and polycultural, John Jesurun scrambles Goethe's mythic egghead

Many things, including some audience members' hackles, are bound to rise when John Jesurun's Faust/How I Rose receives its New York unveiling as part of BAM's Next Wave Festival this fall, in a production by Mexico City's Teatro de Arena, staged by its artistic director, Martin Acosta. One performance (November 17) will be given entirely in Spanish, the rest in English—but that means John Jesurun's English, so get your right brains ready for linguistic dislocations, from German to Spanish and back via our own tongue, the likes of which you've never experienced. Unless, that is, you're familiar with Jesurun's other works, like Number Minus One, Deep Sleep, Shatterhand Massacree, and the East Village's favorite post-surrealist stage soap opera, Chang in a Void Moon.

Famous for fracturing space, time, and common sanity in his works as well as language, Jesurun once produced a piece that divided the audience literally as well as metaphorically: In Everything That Rises Must Converge, he sat cast members in two parallel rows, on opposite sides of a wall, facing two separate blocks of audience bleachers; the other half of the cast was visible on video monitors mounted above the wall. Not irrelevantly, the piece dealt with both teams trying to rescue a kidnapped translator (who showed up once, briefly, as a video image). Midway through the piece, the whole arrangement revolved, giving each half of the audience the other half of the live action. Such visual dislocations are certainly germane to the medieval tale of Faust, the elderly scholar who regains youth and power by selling his soul to the devil. Best known as the hero of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's sturm und drang epic drama, Faust has carried out his adventures—most notably his seduction of the innocent peasant girl Gretchen or Marguerite—and remorsefully faced his damnation through every form of theatrical art from grand opera to puppet play. Jesurun's rendition, of which New York got a preview taste several years ago when a Builders Association piece employed excerpts from it, smashes all the barriers, leaping from high tragedy to coarse put-down and from grandest archaism to lowest contemporary slang. Born to a bilingual family in the Southwest, and German-speaking from his adolescent years on a U.S. military base, Jesurun may be the perfect writer to play the devil with our everyday cultural parameters, livening up our isolationist notion of Eurocentric dead-white-guys art with a good dash of Mexican salsa roja.

And what shakes up the aesthetic consciousness, of course, shakes up political awareness as well. The phrase Faustian bargain, meaning an unholy deal like the one in which the title character trades his eternal soul for superhuman power, is a standard-issue item in political journalism, applicable to everything from nuclear deterrence to electoral redistricting. If Jung described modern humanity as "in search of a soul," Jesurun's games with language, time, and narrative, you might say, are being played over the void where that invisible object used to reside. In a world where dogged materialism and literal-mindedness seem to rule, he offers an escape hatch that comes without obligations to technology, machinery, or the ostensibly solid realities that, as political life has recently been teaching us, can vanish overnight if someone's in a mood to throw his power around. By the time Faust/How I Rose comes along, we'll know if we're in for four more years of devil's deals or not; either way, our souls are likely to need the liberating lunacy of his verbal dance.

The devil made him do it: Ari Brickman as Faust
photo: José Jorge Carreón
The devil made him do it: Ari Brickman as Faust

Faust/How I Rose by John Jesurun, November 16–20, BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718.636.4100, bam.org

November 18, BAMdialogue with director Acosta and playwright Jesurun, BAM Rose Cinemas

Previews by Charles McNulty

September 21-October 24
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, 212.239.6200

The Station Agent may have made him a film star, but theater people have been long aware of Peter Dinklage's big talent. Probably the shortest man (at 4-11) to ever play Shakespeare's humpback villain, he's likely to prove one of the most mesmerizing.

Previews September 22, opens October 14
Biltmore Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212.246.4422

The ever fresh Mary-Louise Parker stars in the Broadway debut of Craig Lucas's 1983 dark comedy about a woman whose life literally has her out on the window ledge. With Debra Monk and Rosie Perez on hand to enhance director Mark Brokaw's dreamy ensemble.

September 23-October 17
P.S.122, 150 First Avenue, 212.477.5288

The Civilians continue to pursue new forms of documentary theater with this oddball exposé of the politics of public information—a catchall that apparently includes everything from Homeland Security to Jessica Lynch.

September 29-October 31
HSA Theatre, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue, 212.868.4444

Classical Theater of Harlem's fall season kicks off with a revival of Melvin Van Peeble's Tony-nominated 1971 musical about the grit and groove of the ghetto street.

October 5-10
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, 718.636.4100

Never at a loss for breathing exuberant life into the classics, the English company Cheek by Jowl returns to BAM in a boundary-crossing co-production with France's Théâtre du Nord. Declan Donnellan directs British actor Nonso Anozie's critically hailed turn as the Moor of Venice.

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