Before Hell was other people, it was, in the formulation of Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, anyplace that wasn’t Heaven. “Why, this is Hell,” Mephistopheles sighs in the study of Dr. Faustus, the scholar who makes a deal so bad there’s bad deals named for him. It’s not hard for audience members to commiserate: Classic Stage Company’s Doctor Faustus, directed by Andrei Belgrader, is a hammy drag that feels far removed from the divine.
Belgrader’s approach emphasizes farce over feeling. No fewer than five times in two hours, the cast stops the show to engage audience members in strained interactive comedy. None of this illustrates Marlowe’s themes of human ambition or corruptibility. Instead, the production comes to feel like some ill-conceived staff retreat, where, in the interest of teambuilding, everyone in your office will have to grit through some improv. Hell is other people dragged onstage.
The blood oaths and poetry have their moments. Chris Noth, as the doomed doctor, glances against majesty when left alone with Marlowe’s monologues. Slick and cocksure but haunted in the eyes, Noth has made a career out of men tempted into abuses of power. He’s commanding as his Faust talks himself into having a go at necromancy, but at other times he only appears fitfully engaged, especially when, like us, he’s stuck watching the pageantry.
Marlowe’s play, honoring medieval mystery theater, is short on drama but long on processions. Each deadly sin gets a walk-on, many of them in this staging bleating and tiresome — if gluttony is a high moral crime, why isn’t stuffing our faces with a surfeit of inanities? Later, in Marlowe’s most famous passage, Helen of Troy is treated to a for-the-ages toast, but in this case she arrives costumed in a parade float–cum-dumbwaiter: Here’s history’s greatest beauty scoot-yanked across the stage by ropes at the bottom of her dress.
The show’s flourishes never work. After striking the bargain that grants him 24 years of infernal knowledge and power, Faust flies to Rome, planning to yoink food from the hands of the pope. A cheery painting of the Vatican is lugged onto the stage, and puppets get duly dangled in front of it, the effect all the more disappointing for suggesting the village a great winged devil looms over in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film of Goethe’s stab at this legend.
No image here will linger. The visage of a slab-beast covered in the faces of the damned might stir more terror if we weren’t so aware of the actor uncertainly tiptoeing inside. That monster is the first appearance of Mephistopheles, who later takes the welcome form of Zach Grenier — as devilish an actor as you could wish for. Noth handles the blank verse well enough, but Grenier makes it dance, playing wicked with rich comic resignation. Hell would get wearying after a while.
But Grenier gets much less stage time than the clowns (Ken Cheeseman, Lucas Caleb Rooney), who get a ukulele number and a dozen or so puns on the name “Dick.” (David Bridel, with Belgrader, adapted Marlowe quite freely.) The nadir, worse even than the ukulele sing-along: the clowns pulling a woman from the audience and urging her to remove her clothes. “Regard his hellish fall,” we’re instructed as the show wraps, but that tumble — quick, fogged-over, unmemorable — is the least of the evening’s horrors.
By Christopher Marlowe
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street