Faust Things First

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

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.


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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

    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.

    Show People
    Previews begin March 16, opens April 6

    Second Stage, 307 W 43rd, 212-246-4422

    As any young woman who has sojourned at a financial-district bar during happy hour can tell you, young bankers are not to be trusted. (Not even when they send over delicious martinis.) But in Paul Weitz's new comedy, erstwhile Broadway actors Jerry and Marnie are too eager for the possibility of work, no matter how questionable, to look gift bankers in the mouth.

    Previews begin March 24, opens May 10

    Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W 46th, 212-307-4100

    It's been years since the Disney Store dominated a squeaky-cleaned 42nd Street with its plush wares, but Walt's still making inroads into Times Square. The stage version of Tarzan, with songs by Phil Collins (including eight new ones), swings into action this spring. Josh Strickland will play the lord of Greystoke. Jenn Gambatese? She Jane.

    The Threepenny Opera
    Previews begin March 24, opens April 20

    Studio 54, 254 W 54th, 212-719-1300

    Audiences should expect to pay quite a bit more than three pennies when director Scott Elliott unveils a new version of this Brecht-Weill musical replete with an all-star class. Avant-garde playwright and famed character actor Wallace Shawn pens the adaptation, which features the likes of Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper, Nellie McKay, and Madonna's baby daddy Carlos Leon.

    Previews begin March 25, opens April 25

    Palace Theatre, 1564 Bway, 212-307-4100

    With the happy exception of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer singspiel episode "Once More, With Feeling," there has never been a vampire musical that hasn't decisively bitten. Elton John, Bernie Taupin, and Linda Woolverton hope to change all that with this adaptation of Anne Rice's novels. Song titles include "Crimson Kiss," "From the Dead," and "Make Me as You Are."

    Stuff Happens
    Previews begin March 28

    Public Theater, 425 Lafayette, 212-239-6200

    When asked about looting in Baghdad following the fall of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld answered, "Stuff happens . . . and it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." This answer failed to satisfy playwright David Hare, who crafted this provocative drama, a hit in London, about the events preceding the invasion of Iraq.

    Three Days of Rain
    Previews begin March 28, opens April 19

    Jacobs Theatre, 242 W 45th, 212-239-6200

    We're supposing April showers, even contiguous days of them, won't deter audiences from the sight of Julia Roberts making her Broadway debut in this Richard Greenberg drama. (Indeed, a ticket-buying frenzy, unknown since Nicole Kidman stripped for The Blue Room, crashed several ticket-selling sites.) The play—oh, that—flits back and forth between generations as one family's worth of intrigues unfolds.

    Peer Gynt
    Opens April 11

    BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave, Bklyn, 718-636-4100

    In one of the most striking scenes of Henrik Ibsen's epic play, Peer makes a vain attempt at self-awareness. His soul, he finds, is like an onion. He peels and peels but can never find the kernel. The same might be said of the almost unstageable play, which director after director has attempted to unwrap. Robert Wilson is the latest to try his hand.

    Shining City
    Previews begin April 13, opens May 3

    Biltmore Theatre, 261 W 47th, 212-239-6200

    Conor McPherson is no stranger to the supernatural. In one of his early plays, St. Nicholas, he described a theater critic turned vampire. This new work, which echoes the spectral quality of The Weir, concerns a man haunted by his dead wife and the psychiatrist who tries, at some peril, to aid him.  

    The History Boys
    Previews begin April 14, opens April 23

    Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W 44th, 212-239-6200

    A girl like me wouldn't have learned much history at all if her class had been populated by the cast of English schoolboy hotties who made this Alan Bennett play such a hit at London's National. It concerns a horde of sixth-formers and the teachers who help and hinder them.

    The Importance of Being Earnest Opens April 18
    BAM Harvey Theater
    651 Fulton St, Bklyn, 718-636-4100

    George Bernard Shaw once called Oscar Wilde's plays dangerous subjects, because Wilde "has the property of making his critics dull. Local critics should be sharpening nibs then, in preparation for Peter Hall's revival of Wilde's most sparkling confection. Lynn Redgrave stars as the dandiest of dowagers—Lady Bracknell.

    Sore Throats
    Previews begin April 21

    The Duke on 42nd Street, 249 W 42nd, 2nd fl, 212-239-6200

    Howard Brenton used to be a sore subject for us, but ever since we've fallen for his extraordinary espionage show MI-5, he makes us want to scream and shout. In a good way. We're even willing to follow him into the secret-agent-less territory of this new domestic drama, which concerns a divorcée pulled between her volatile ex and her venturesome young roommate. Evan Yionoulis directs.

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