Faust Things First

A mammoth production of the epic verse gets a stateside staging

It took Johann Wolfgang von Goethe nearly four decades to sort out everything he had to say in his massive epic verse drama Faust, but when its two parts were finally published at the end of his life, in 1832, the massive work swept the world. Everyone from poets to society belles memorized it; scholars spent decades picking over it and analyzing its word patterns; incredible numbers of composers, including such luminaries as Berlioz, Schumann, Gounod, and Boito, struggled to find a musical shape for it; great filmmakers like F.W. Murnau seized on its opportunities for visual phantasmagoria. All over Europe, actors made their reputations playing its two great leading roles: Faust, the philosopher who sells his soul and then spends a lifetime seeking its redemption, and Mephisto, the wise, witty, paradoxical, and mocking devil who tempts him ever further onward.

Sometimes seemingly omnipresent, Faust is one of the Western world's cornerstone works. The 19th century loved the tragic love story that occupies its first part, Faust's seduction and abandonment of the beautiful village girl Gretchen; the late 20th century was more fascinated by part two, essentially a philosophic quest, ranging freely through time and place, that ends ambiguously, with Faust dying neither irrevocably damned nor convincingly redeemed. Through the prism of Goethe's all-ingesting intelligence, the ancient story has provided source material and inspiration for countless modern works of philosophy, literature, music, and every other realm of thought.

The only place where you never find Goethe's Faust is in the mainstream American theater, which can assimilate anything from Shakespeare to solo performance but somehow always displays a glaring gap where Faust ought to be. The Faust legend in any form has been almost wholly a downtown and avant-garde property (the last major uptown performance of Faust, in a touring German production with Will Quadflieg in the title role and the notorious Gustaf Gründgens as Mephisto, played at City Center in the early 1960s). Orson Welles animated Marlowe's version with black-light effects and color-blind casting for the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s; the Living Theater, Judson Poets' Theater, Robert Wilson, and the Wooster Group, at various times, have all tackled Gertrude Stein's cubist rendering of the story, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights; John Jesurun's brilliant verbal jet-streaming of the story was seen at BAM's Next Wave Festival last year, staged by a troupe from Mexico City.

Will Badgett as Faust and David Greenspan as Mephistopheles
photo: Paula Court
Will Badgett as Faust and David Greenspan as Mephistopheles

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  • Now, at last giving Goethe his long-awaited due, comes David Herskovits's Target Margin Theater, to supply as much of Faust as can be crammed into two alternating evenings from April 21 through May 21, under the auspices of the Classic Stage Company (whose artistic director, Brian Kulick, just had his way with that other Western culture-hero, Hamlet). Better known for putting a deconstructive spin on ancient plays practically nobody's ever heard of (Mamba's Daughters; Dido, Queen of Carthage; Strictly Dishonorable), Target Margin has been workshopping its way up to this epic-scale event for the past several years, using a new translation by Douglas Langworthy for what it describes as a "mammoth production," its two parts running a combined total of seven hours. Expect philosophy, politics, psychology, poetry, profanity, mysticism, satire, and more than a little Lower Manhattan attitude —in other words, a bulging microcosm of the encyclopedic awareness that Goethe poured into his text. Target Margin regular Will Badgett plays Faust, with that devilishly clever actor-playwright, Obie winner David Greenspan, as his Mephisto. Target Margin's advance publicity, by the way, describes the thinker and his tempter as "literary history's oddest couple." While this may give a clue to Herskovits's directorial interpretation, don't expect to see a Broadway version with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick anytime soon.

    Faust, Parts I and II, April 21 through May 21, Target Margin Theater/Classic Stage Company, 136 E 13th, 212-677-4210


    Listings by Alexis Soloski

    Well
    In previews, opens March 30

    Longacre Theatre, 220 W 48th, 212-239-6200

    Very well. That's how Lisa Kron's memory play about personal, civic, and maternal responsibilities was received when it debuted at the Public Theater two seasons ago. Kron herself narrates her mother's neighborhood activism and debilitating illnesses. Jayne Houdyshell reprises her knockout (albeit recliner-bound) turn as Kron's mother.


    Fahrenheit 451
    Opens March 15, through April 23

    59E59, 59 E 59th, 212-279-4200

    451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which your program will begin to burn. And you too, most likely. But don't expect temperatures to run quite so high when Godlight Theatre Company presents Ray Bradbury's play version of his novel. Godlight, which had a great success last year with a last-minute production of A Clockwork Orange, again adapts a dystopian novel to the stage.


    Junta High
    Opens March 16

    P.S.122, 150 First Ave, 212-352-3101

    Social anxieties, competing cliques, and the rival pressures to stand out and conform can certainly make high school feel like a battlefield. But arch-monologuist Clay McLeod Chapman replaces the figurative with the literal in this tale of warrior football players, terrorist cheerleaders, and guidance counselor hostages. Hungry March Band supplies the music.


    Not Clown
    Opens March 16

    Soho Rep, 46 Walker, 212-941-8632

    We've often imagined a world without clowns to be rather utopian (no more pies in the face, fewer bicycle horns, only a reasonable number of midgets per car), but writer Steven Moore and director Carlos Trevino feel rather differently. From Austin they bring this tale of a future in which circuses have been banned and an outlaw clown troupe entices a young girl.

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