The setup: What a thoroughly bewitching production this is. The magicians at Classical Theatre have outdone themselves in bringing to life this rare Elizabethan gem, Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Everything about it works, from the antique English dance band tunes which set the tone, to the imaginative, awesome theatricality that gives the play sweep and power. If you're under the impression that a creaky, arcane drama from the days of yore might be a yawn fest, this show will mightily convince otherwise.
The execution: With an intelligent adaptation by Timothy N. Evers that shrewdly edits great Marlowe down to more modest size - a few subsidiary characters are excised, without doing overall damage - director Philip Hays and his team of sorcerers conjure up an enchanted evening in the theater not to be missed.
In case you're unfamiliar with this play, you're certainly familiar with its universal plot: proud Dr. Faustus makes a bargain with the devil, selling his soul for 24 years of unalloyed pleasure. Needless to say, his adventures bring him momentary gain, but no lasting happiness. At the end, no surprise here, he is dragged kicking and screaming into hell.
Adam Gibbs and James Belcher anchor the play and are magnificent as smart-ass Faustus and a wily, seen-it-all, been-there Mephistopheles. Adversaries and allies, at one point they both do a little soft shoe number, a neat vaudeville turn that says everything you need to know about the seductions yet to come and how easy it is to be tempted.
Young slender Gibbs, edgy and always on the prowl, imbues Faustus with hip, nervous energy, an intelligent know-it-all who shuns the world's earthly knowledge - law, medicine, religion - for mastery of the dark arts of magic and necromancy. In the midnight woods, he mocks God and conjures the forces of hell. Belcher enters with an unearthly howl. Rumpled, tired as if on a journey he's made too many times and carrying a battered suitcase, this emissary from Lucifer shuffles on with knowing, sly winks directed at us. Easy marks, we could all be his next victim.
Dain Geist and Johanna Hubbard play the good and bad angels (and other roles, like the Pope and Helen of Troy) who try to convince Faustus to go straight or prompt him to be more devilish. Their arguments are Faustus's conscience made manifest. (Soon, another young contemporary Elizabethan playwright, whose career would be inspired by Marlowe, would take such external characters and turn them inward.) Throughout, Marlowe's rich poetry - an inspiration for Shakespeare - is crystal clear and easily comprehended under the stirring performances.
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Ryan McGettigan's atmospheric design of raked floorboards, a carnival's dangling electric lights, and those cabinets of wonders - out of which all manner of hellishness appear - is its own wonder to behold. Matt Schlief's lighting dazzles, Macy Perrone's costumes beguile, the masks by The Maskery & Pirate Mask Workshop are a treat (the bejeweled face of Helen of Troy is inspired), and Justin Dunford's puppet design captivates (the Seven Deadly Sins are amorphous, low-rent creatures from the id, fuzzy but frightening).
Turning Faustus into English music hall transforms Marlowe's stuffiness by making it smoothly palatable and more relevant, while adding a sweet layer of modern irony. Man, says Marlowe, must forever battle pride, gluttony, lust, et al., but if you give yourself to the dark side, well, then you deserve what you get.
The verdict: In its scintillating production, Classical Theatre Company makes going to Hell an absolute pleasure.
Christopher Marlowe's journey to hell hypnotizes through February 16 at The Barn, 2201 Preston. Purchase tickets online at classicaltheatre.org or call 713-963-9665. $10-$20.