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A soul for sale.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival kicked off is summer season this past weekend, opening three plays in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. Register-Guard arts writer Bob Keefer reviews those three, plus two others that opened earlier this spring.

ASHLAND - Curiosity, as we know, killed the cat. A spectacular new production of an old, old tale that's just opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor stage explores the deep seductions and terrible price of ultimate knowledge.

`The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus' is not by William Shakespeare but by his lesser known contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. First performed at the end of the 16th century, it remains very much a story for our time: What is the cost of human knowledge?

Dr. John Faustus, an educated, modern man of Europe, has worked his way through all the academic fields of learning and yet finds himself deeply unsatisfied.

And so he turns to magic. With the help of a couple of conjuror friends, he summons a ghastly Mephostophilis and strikes his lethal bargain with the devil: 24 years of divine knowledge and power, in exchange for his immortal soul.

This was the original Faustian bargain. In various forms Faust's story appears in works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Mann and David Mamet, and in operas by at least four different composers. Dozens of movies tell the Faust tale directly, including a 1967 Richard Burton production. Hundreds of stories - think `The Devil and Daniel Webster' - are its descendants.

Marlowe's script isn't always easy on the 21st century ear. Take the opening lines, spoken by the Chorus:

Not marching in the fields of Trasimene

Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens

Nor sporting in the dalliance of love

In courts of kings where state is overturned ...

Got all that? Even the director admits this isn't the most audience-friendly material.

"I was in the play as Mephostophilis in 1979, and now I'm directing it," James Edmondson quipped at a Sunday morning press briefing. ``(Being in the play) twice in a lifetime seems excessive.''

But Edmondson, working with dramaturg Barry Kraft, has pulled a cinematic series of scenes out of the two different published scripts of Marlowe's play, rather like a conjuror pulling a story from a hat. Nothing drags.

Aided by lavish costumes and unerring timing, the play speeds by, with Good Angel and Bad Angel arguing over Faust's fate and wonderfully creepy tailed devils slithering in and out of the abyss. Lucifer, played by Brent Harris, is done up in lime green and white, the outfit of a casino stage singer.

One of the best scenes comes with the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, who are each introduced, in turn, to an amazed Faustus at the end of Act 1.

Envy announces she "cannot read and therefore wish(es) all books burned." Pride pampers herself with a mirror. Sloth nearly falls asleep in the middle of his speech. And Lechery makes X-rated promises with a flick of her tongue - promises that Faustus will ultimately collect on when he summons up none other than Helen of Troy as his paramour.

Actor Jonathan Haugen portrays Faustus as a sharp, ambitious but ultimately sympathetic man: fashionable and hip, a character out of a Vanity Fair fashion ad at one moment and world-weary, with Bob Newhart-sad eyes, at the next.

Like so many people we know, he is proud, assured, and in way over his head, though it takes him a long time - most of the 24 years, in fact - to realize it.

The role of Mephostophilis is dead on in the hands of Ray Porter. He initially appears as a dragon, but Faustus - already intoxicated with his unusual power - orders him to come back as a Franciscan friar - a slight libel on the Catholics of Marlowe's day - and Mephostophilis agreeably consents. He is the devil's advance man here on Earth, warm and cordial, sophisticated but not condescending, steering Faustus gently - though later more sternly - away from the imprecations of the Good Angel who tries continually to save him.

Hell, in Marlowe's reading of the world, is not a special place.

`Where we are, is hell,' Mephostophilis warns Faustus, who shrugs this off, though he's already begun to fritter away his divine powers on cheap parlor tricks.

`I think hell's a fable,' he says.

But in the end, hell becomes a very real place. As a fiery pit opens its mouth onstage, we feel for the trembling Faustus, whose 24 years of knowledge now seem nothing compared to an eternity of torment that will begin as the clock strikes midnight.

He wheedles and bargains, pleading that rather than an eternity he might "live in hell a thousand years - a hundred thousand! - and at last be saved."

But the scudding devils surround him, and he is pulled forever into the pit.


The Evil Angel (Catherine Lynn Davis) urges Faustus not to renege on his deal.
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Title Annotation:Arts & Literature; Lavishly staged by the Ashland troupe, `Faustus' is a difficult play, but still meaningful in our time
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 26, 2005
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