Faust and Foremost

The Devil steals the show—what else did you expect?

Let's face facts: The first act of Part I of Goethe's Faust in the Target Margin–CSC co-production —just under 90 minutes of the work's six-hour playing time—is very tough going. A cluttered set, stilted blocking, and an uneven supporting cast with glaring patches of amateurism reveal director David Herskovits's unsteady struggle to grasp the giant piece. Both of Goethe's alternative prologues are used, neither focused with enough lucidity. Will Badgett, a dry, rhetorical actor miscast in a juicy role, renders the old academician Faust in a dogged monotone. At the intermission, I was sorely tempted to leave.

I can't tell you how glad I am that I stayed. In the second half of Part I, Herskovits's production finds its stride. The clutter is cleared away. The miraculous transformation that makes Faust young again replaces Badgett with Ty Jones, a first-rate actor whose verse speaking carries innate emotional conviction. The weaker members of the ensemble have less to do; Eunice Wong, an able actress, emerges from them to make an unforced, touchingly helpless Gretchen. And David Green-span, as Mephistopheles, comes into his own. What follows is an intellectual adventure of the first water, shot through with bold images and—in the interchanges between the philosopher and his devil—long passages of gripping intensity, edged with sharp, sardonic irony. By the time Herskovits takes us, reeling, through the wildly disjunctive episodes of Part II, even Badgett, returning to play the again-aged Faust, delivers his lines with a new, somber intensity. The high point of this theatrical Matterhorn is Greenspan's rendering of Mephistopheles' last, dazzling tirade. Even I, an untiring admirer of Greenspan's work, didn't know he could get this good. After months of junk and mediocrity, I'd forgotten theater could get this good.

Faust (Will Badgett) and Mephisto (David Greenspan) in Faust
photo: Jill Jones
Faust (Will Badgett) and Mephisto (David Greenspan) in Faust

Details

Faust Parts I & II
By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Douglas Langworthy
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
212-279-4200

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Volumes have been written about Faust. My space limitations won't let me begin to discuss the play itself. All I'll say is: Don't be a fool. See Faust. Stick with its terrible first act. You're unlikely ever to see it in complete form again. And the theater is the only place to absorb this extraordinary work at full strength. All complaints and reservations notwithstanding, cheers to everybody involved for bringing it off.

 
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