Director David Herskovits and his Target Margin colleagues have made a devilishly ambitious pact. In three installments over coming seasons, they plan to retranslate, adapt, and stage Faust, Goethe’s 19th-century master drama, and ultimately to assemble these evenings into one enormous whole. Their quest for theatrical absolutes makes a fitting match for German romanticism; it’s also unquestionably the kind of repertory adventure that downtown theater needs to undertake more often. Part I, called These Very Serious Jokes in Douglas Langworthy’s version, has certain unfinished qualities but showcases the larger project’s promise and perils.
As Faustus, Will Badgett does fine work locating and inhabiting his character’s exploding psyche. Especially in his monologues, he allows the life-lusting scholar to soar precariously between thought and feeling. When the doctor surrenders to his desire for “spirit and wings,” Badgett puts existential perfection within reach. David Greenspan, whose sly way onstage makes him a delectable choice for Mephisto, savors Goethe’s dense, poetic concoctions but is curiously underutilized. (Greenspan seems to be also deliberately underplaying, perhaps to emphasize the fallen angel’s selective exercise of power.)
Against the set’s colorful junkscape, Herskovits’s playful imagination pops up in the form of toy halos, a fetishized pentagram, and Mephisto’s antics as a big black poodle. But the text’s mythic and musical dimensions, more than directorial mischief, will no doubt propel the thematic structure forward in future episodes. All may be revealed as Herskovits, like his epic soul-searchers, discovers the additional secrets of Goethe’s universe.