Faust in Love
nytheatre.com review by Robin Reed
March 18, 2005
Target Margin’s second installment of their intended three part epic adaptation of the whole of Goethe’s Faust is a lofty affair that left me with a lot of questions.
They say that it’s the part of the story with which everyone is familiar, where Faust falls in love with Gretchen. I might be in the minority here, but I’m more familiar with the Marlowe play, and think of Faustus as he who makes the deal with the devil. I never really knew of Gretchen. In the Goethe version, Mephistopheles serves as less of an enticer and more of a “wing man” to Faust, doing his bidding in the vein of an evil fairy godmother. I was excited to see something new in a tale with which I feel fairly familiar.
The show is in process as the audience enters, with Gretchen sitting on stage reading and other actors behind curtains (that the audience has to walk by) going over last minute bits. I have yet to see this used effectively in a piece, from the pros to the rank amateurs. I never pegged myself such a stickler for tradition, but I like to know definitively when a piece begins. I wasn’t sure if I should have been craning my neck around other audience members who were chatting away before the show began for fear of missing something that I might need later. Is she just reading? What is she reading? Is this important? Did the show actually start at eight on the dot? Frankly, it makes me nervous.
Faust sees Gretchen. Faust wants Gretchen. Faust instructs Mephistopheles to get him the girl. Snag: the girl is devoutly religious (as is her mother) and doesn’t so easily fall for the entrapments set up by the devil. Of course, Gretchen is also immediately smitten by the look of Faust. Intrigued, she slowly comes around and they fall passionately in love.
A fairly simple boy-meets-girl (with the help of the dark side) sort of tale told in many short scenes. Why, I wonder, does it seem so much more complicated (and longer) than it actually is? David Herskovits’s direction, in an attempt to keep things moving at breakneck speed, derails the inherent simplicity and makes for a very self-conscious production.
The design elements also seem plagued by this.
Costume designer Kaye Voyce has outfitted Faust in red plaid flannel pajamas and robe (when he gets all fancy, he puts a necktie on with this garb). I was constantly distracted by this—why is he in his pajamas? Is she trying to speak to his life of leisure? How is it that he manages to combine this with combat boots? The same carries over to Gretchen, layered in some sort of 1980s-punk-meets-Eastern-Bloc-peasant-girl ensemble. Again, why? Is this to speak to her poverty in comparison to Faust? The only costume that made sense to me was Mephistopheles's just-off-white three piece suit over sharp black shirt. He looks like Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island, the guy who, upon arrival, makes your dreams come true. This makes sense.
The lighting design by Lenore Doxsee and sound by John Collins left me baffled. Did I see a night with a bunch of technical difficulties? Did the actors just not make it into their light a bunch of times? Was the sound supposed to be barely audible, then blast to eleven in the middle of a scene? There seemed to be too many “accidents” the evening I was there for it not to be intentional. But why would professional designers with hefty resumes make distracting choices? Am I not “getting” something? Is it suddenly ok to have actors “out of their light” or have raucous sound cues overpowering the text?
The three main actors, however, did much to put me at ease and tell their story. George Hannah as Faust and Eunice Wong as Gretchen both turn in subtle yet strong performances. Yet as appealing as the young lovers are, they are no match for the mesmerizing presence of David Greenspan as Mephistopheles. It is such a rare treat to watch an actor so casually precise and commanding. His character is written as the show-stopper, and Greenspan takes it and runs. He’s impishly charming (shouldn’t every devil be?). And the man can totally pull off the white suit.
There is a lot to take in here in a mere seventy minutes. The story gets told, and after a little sifting it does come clear. And while I am curious about their plan to present the whole of Goethe’s epic, I do hope Herskovits revisits his choices and refines them before putting up six hours of Faust.