Dr. Faustus and the Seven Deadly Sins
nytheatre.com review by Robin Reed
March 3, 2005
This was the experience I had this week as I was slated to check out a new version of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and the Seven Deadly Sins at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. My usual companion backed out on me at the eleventh hour claiming, of all things, a headache. Not wanting to face the number seven train on my own, I made a few last ditch efforts to find another date, but no dice. One mention of an “outer borough” made my Manhattan-centric friends wince and wish me luck on my solo journey.
Well, shame on you, friends. Because boy, did you miss out on a doozy! I will admit that I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and got really nervous when artistic director Brian Rogers ushered us from the toasty lobby with a rousing “Ok, everybody. Put on your coats and let’s go outside.” I thought he must be kidding—maybe he’d been inside since last summer and didn’t realize that it was about a billion below out there. As my fellow audience members bundled and shuffled outside, I realized that there was exactly no joke involved. The show starts outside.
As we stood for a few moments, we the audience then began to get our collective minds around the game. Everyone who walked down the street became suspect. Is that girl on the cell phone in the play? Pizza delivery boy on a bike? Nah. Wait. This guy. The dude in the dirty overcoat pushing the cart with the boom box. That’s not just happenstance. He! He will start the play! And lead us in from the cold! Hurrah!
The Vagrant, as he is listed in the program, delivers his prologue out on 49th Avenue. I was intrigued by the idea of Marlowe’s language being overheard by whomever might just pass by. The language of a 400+ year-old play set against the streets of Queens with the Manhattan Skyline just off in the distance. Very cool. As my body temperature starts to level out, the sound of a heavy duty metal gate crashes open and we are led inside to a dark and sloping hallway. Here we have our first encounter with Faustus, who is sitting in his “library” awaiting our arrival, not really knowing that he’s on the verge of a big deal with the devil.
It is at this point in the piece that I fully realize that to be here requires full participation. Whispers of “Faustus” seem to come from out of nowhere. Out of the darkness these sylph-like creatures slither in from holes in the walls and up from under the stairs. There are seven of them: the deadly sins of the title. It is starting to make sense. I’m mildly freaked out when, as instructed, I make my way up the stairs and my leg is grabbed by one of the creatures from the dark. It’s creepy, I’m intrigued but I’m game and locked in for the ride.
We are led upstairs and into the Chocolate Factory’s main playing space. It’s pretty much empty. No place to sit. Instinctually, most of the audience, myself included, stick to the walls. It seems to be our best bet so as not to get in the way. Or is getting “in the way” actually the point?
I'm loathe to give away anymore specifics, because the excitement of the experience truly comes moment to moment and out of nowhere. I’m sure this piece changes every night. The seven “Sins” play as much with the audience as with Faustus and Mephistopheles, taunting, guiding and nudging us throughout the piece. What I will say is that the ingenuity here is astounding. Director (and CF associate artistic director) Aaron Rosenblum’s deft use of space forces the audience out of a passivity that unfortunately has become rote in much of the theatre of today. A stranger trekking about an unfamiliar territory fits this piece like a glove. He gives us license to move about the space and follow Faustus from heaven to hell and back. It is a confident and trusting director who lets the audience choose its own vantage point.
It is easy to take such risks when your support staff is equally as creative and talented. The technical design of the piece is subtle yet provocative. Sparse lighting by Carrie Wood at times made me wonder if my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, especially down in “hell.” Emily DeCola and Tony Fuemmeler created masks for some all-too-brief bits of commedia that had a life of their own. The costumes designed by Tara Hawks put the “Sins” in sexy Dickens-Goes-Goth garb which is at once period and present, in the same vein as pieces of this play being done in the street unites then and now. The scenic design and original musical composition (Brad Kisicki and Jeff Arnal, respectively) work hand-in-hand to accentuate the bare rooms of the Chocolate Factory and turn them into an imagined heaven, hell, and everything in between.
The young and uber-talented cast turn in jarring and wonderful performances. The Sins (Mierya Lucio, Marina Libel, Emily Alpren, Laura Riley, Anna Hopkins, Saori Tzukada, and Melaena Cadiz) are fearless and commanding in their assault on the audience, turning from mischievous tour guides to demanding task masters on a dime. Kate Donnelly is visually and aurally stunning as a sexy Mephistopheles, with her blood red hair and young Kathleen Turner rasp. Joe Randazzo as the Vagrant fills many shoes as the one-man chorus. And Nick Capodice is endearing on his mission as Faustus. Through his eager quest, the moral of “be careful of what you ask for because you just might get it” comes blazing at us.
On my quick trip home (yes, I was back downtown in less that twenty minutes) I was still reeling. Theatre is alive and well in Queens, kids. And it’s not so far away. Go check this out—they’re really taking it in new and exciting directions at the Chocolate Factory!