By Manning Harris
The Shakespeare Tavern is presenting Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” adapted and directed by Jeffrey Watkins, running through Jan. 29.
The Faust story is hundreds of years old, rooted in Germanic legend. After Marlowe’s work, Goethe wrote a tragic play in two parts; and French composer Charles Gounod wrote the grand opera “Faust.” Both of these works were in the early 19th Century.
But first came Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus.” Marlowe was well known to most of the literary people of London: Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Thomas Kyd, and others. These people were close associates; it sort of boggles the mind. How’s that for a book of the month club?
When Marlowe died in a mysterious tavern brawl, he was only 29. Shakespeare was just beginning his career as a playwright. “Doctor Faustus” was his last play. You probably know there are those who think Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare’s works: You see, Marlowe had been to Cambridge, and Shakespeare did not go to college. How could he (Shakespeare) have written those works? We shall not enter that debate.
“Faustus” is the story of an intellectual who wants still more knowledge, power, and riches. Where to turn? Why not the devil—and this is what happens. Faustus conjures up Mephistopheles, who gets permission from Lucifer himself to strike a bargain: For 24 years, Faustus will “live in all voluptuousness, having thee (Mephistopheles) ever to attend on me, to give me whatsoever I shall ask, to tell me whatsoever I demand, to slay mine enemies, and aid my friends, and always be obedient to my will.”
As you know, there is a catch: Faustus must sign his soul over, in blood, to Lucifer, and reside in hell forever. This may not sound like much of a bargain, but Faustus is bold and ambitious and is “resolute to try the utmost magic can perform.”
For purposes of clarification and simplification, Artistic Director Watkins has adapted Marlowe’s text (or what we think is Marlowe’s; it appears there were changes and additions after Marlowe died) and pared it down to two characters: Doctor Faustus, played by Atlanta icon Chris Kayser; and Mephistopheles, played by Laura Cole. The running time of the play is around 80 minutes, no intermission.}
It’s a tense, atmospheric 80 minutes, highly theatrical, and I think it does the Faust story justice. Elizabethan purists may protest, with some justification, that too much of the rich five-act Marlowe text is omitted. These decisions and reactions are always subjective. If the entire play were performed, it would be well over three hours. Audiences these days generally don’t want to sit that long. I think Mr. Watkins’ condensed version works very well; it certainly cuts to the heart of the subject.
The actors must be excellent, and they are, especially Mr. Kayser. In addition to his technical expertise and flawless diction, he has a charismatic appeal that compels attention.
Ms. Cole is also fine; she uses a nimble intelligence (which Mephistopheles must have) to simultaneously woo and frighten both Dr. Faustus and the audience. In addition, Anna Fontaine briefly appears as Helen of Troy, historically the most beautiful woman ever. Nicholas Faircloth and Dani Herd complete the cast.
I haven’t mentioned that the show is in the round—the first I’ve ever seen at the Tavern. This is another excellent choice by Mr. Watkins. I must say the play gets downright spooky at times; all this talk about hell, blood, and the devil weaves a rather dark spell. Kudos to Greg Hanthorn, Jr.’s lighting design.
Let’s end with Marlowe’s epilogue concerning the fearful fate of Faustus: “Regard his hellish fall, whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise only to wonder at unlawful things, whose deepness doth entice such forward wits to practice more than heavenly power permits.”
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.