Staging a difficult play in a dance club is a tried-and-true gambit of young directors. You can borrow the sexy shimmer of urban nightlife to add a hip sheen to old words—and maybe even lure some audience members usually reluctant to attend boring plays. But it’s a devil’s bargain: Shows set in clubs frequently end up being mostly about, well, being in clubs.
That’s the case with a new “electro-rock musical” version of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights—Gertrude Stein’s 1938 reworking of the Faust myth—directed by Abby Colella at 3LD, with a score by Deepali Gupta and Zachary Segal. It tries to do for Stein approximately what The Donkey Show did for Shakespeare. Ultimately, though, the club-fun quotient mostly drowns the Stein-fun.
Stein’s revision of the Faustian pact involves a scientist who trades his soul for electric light—obliterating the difference between night and day (and with it all kinds of other natural cycles). It’s easy to extrapolate ambivalence about technology, science, and human hubris from this bargain. And Stein was certainly proved right when atomic bombs created deadly artificial days above Japan only seven years after she wrote the play. The biblical serpent from Eden, emblem of dangerous knowledge, shows up in Stein’s play as a poisoning Viper who bites Faustus’s feminine foil Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, letting her (them) in on the secrets of electricity. (In the script, she might be one person, or two. Here, she’s played by three women dressed in white and umbilically connected by white cord.) Stein’s Faustus ultimately celebrates the gentler light thrown by wax and wick—and other ways of seeing in the dark besides science’s harsh illuminations.
But when you sing about electric light on a dance floor, to pounding electro-accompaniment, what you inevitably get is a vindication of club lighting’s flashing satisfactions—another kind of artificial day, pulsing in synesthetic sync with the beat. Here, Doc Faustus (Ned Risely) seems to have sold his soul for a disco ball (and the DJ can’t save his life). You could maybe follow this thought into a critique of a gluttonous society that uses its vast technological resources mostly for sensate gratification—but I’m not sure the production can back it up. This Faustus uncritically revels in the club experience for its immediate theatrical potential—and for the Doc, damnation is the cover charge.
The production is touted as “immersive,” which is theater-speak for “spectators must remain standing throughout and frequently swivel their heads.” But this overlooks an important fact about dancefloors: though it’s very enjoyable to bump and hustle while squished together on one, it’s less agreeable to stand still and spectate in such conditions (and however much this company would like it to happen, it’s hard to dance to theater).
Packed in the middle of 3LD’s performance space, we’re surrounded by singing-and-dancing tableaux performed on silvery podiums—some of which are enclosed by chain-link fencing. (My date told me that the set—by Adam Wyron—resembled an early ’90s MTV dance show called Grind.) Above us, the enthusiastic young company—clad in vaguely Victorian garb, which makes the bespectacled, fresh-faced Faustus look a bit like Harry Potter—drills through herky-jerky choreographies that owe a large debt to the spooky-music-video-school of movement pioneered by Thriller.
Stein’s approach to playwriting does have something in a common with dance music. Both seek to evoke a continuous present with serial structure. But Stein was after enriched attention to human consciousness’s filtering of fleeting experience—and dance music looks for self-forgetting ecstasy in motion. Stein’s looping lines—deliberately repetitive, and full of short, tart words—easily accommodate themselves to musical accompaniment, and Gupta and Segal’s score thumps, and throbs, and even achieves a ballad-y lyricism (kinda like ’90s-era Madonna) in all the appropriate places. The tricky part, though, is that it mostly subordinates the varied rhythms of the text—which deliberately blurs the difference between narration and dialogue—to the insistent regularity of four-on-the-floor pop jams. The nuances get washed away in synth. The approach is Stein by way of Kanye: This Dr. Faustus lights all of the lights, and wants us to see everything.
Director Colella’s staging ideas run the spectrum from inspired to exasperating. A brilliant dubbed-seeming sequence renders an encounter between the Doctor and one segment of his tripartite female foil as a flickering snippet from early cinema. Eerie lip-synching sections simultaneously suggest karaoke and demonic possession. But other flourishes—some passages delivered in a foreign language, a tacky interpretive dance interlude—appear designed more to showcase the talents of individual cast members than to add meaning to the evening.
Staging Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights in New York is a kind of avant-garde pledge of allegiance: paying homage to the leading innovator of a previous generation while bending her flexible script to serve new aesthetic ideas. Foreman did it; the Woosters did it. And now this ambitious young troupe is swearing fealty, too. If the production ends up making a Faustian bargain of its own, sacrificing complexity for the seductions of nightclub hipness, it’s still cheering to see a new crop of smart young people selling their souls to experimental theater.