Shakespeare Tavern excites audience with devilish Faustus

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company closed its performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus last weekend. Having played for just over three weeks, it began the Company’s new year with a wonderful start, and though that play is over, many more exciting performances are sure to come.

The story of Doctor Faustus is the classic story of the man who sells his soul to the Devil for immense power. Though the story is more of an archetype than a specific tale, Marlowe produced the most well-received rendition in his sixteenth century play. It is one example of the many non-Shakespeare plays performed by the Company.

The original play has dozens of major and minor characters, and director Jeffrey Watkins did a wonderful job cutting it down to two main stage performers. Veteran Company actor Maurice Ralston worked with his highly experienced fellow Laura Cole to put on an intense and gratifying two-person performance. Ralston played Faustus while Cole played Mephistophilis and other minor characters. “Sound Demons” Nicholas Faircloth, Mike Niedzwiecki and Mary Russell provided vocal effects.

Director Watkins explains the dogma of Doctor Faustus for his company, saying it is “the heart of our culture,” exemplifying their direction strategy by “being completely immersive” with their cast-crowd interaction. Before the play started, the audience knew something special was in the atmosphere. The minimal set was placed where usually there are only seats, and the upper balcony and the side stairs were the only utilized portions of the “standard” set, while the “proper” stage was used for additional seating. The end result was a sort of arena layout.

The performance began with Mephistophilis coming down from the balcony and lighting the candles on the main set when then walking around and lighting the candles near all the audience members. There is a moment when Mephistophilis first lights the candle and we see him from behind, and we know something dark and solemn is adrift. When Mephistophilis starts lighting candles in the audience, Faustus finally speaks. By this time we have heard no lines for five minutes and are on the edge of our seats.

Dramatic shows are difficult to perform because they tend to drag, which is usually the cast’s fault. However, Doctor Faustus never dragged, and even the dark and grim atmosphere of the seating areas was not enough to warrant dozing during the electrifying performances conceived by Ralston and Cole.

For example, Faustus dramatically slams down several books, and the thuds trickle into vibrations felt in the audience. Such effects are so well implemented that the intent of such blocking and movement is unnoticed, though the effect is still unnerving. Ralston’s performance was a classic presentation of his prowess as a performer and his ability to understand his role. He is methodical and transforms himself so that any transition between moods and any agonizing scream is believable and never melodramatic.

Cole was equally superb, mutating between various characters and never being tacky, even in the most ludicrous personalities. The shift from drama to comedy and back was seamless, and it was difficult to notice the change without conscious effort. The fluidity of the actors streamlined the show to be a faster pace than movies that are warranted cuts and video effects. There were none of these in Doctor Faustus. Their effects included a heavy use of fire on stage and magnificent set pieces that were gloomy and gave attribute to their setting, among other lighting tricks.

Perhaps other theatres would have seemed banal for trying to do what Watkins’ cast did, but the Company pulled off a marvelous feat. The grisly images of Satan and the grotesque aroma of Mephistophilis were perfect in their implementation, a sign of collaboration among director, cast and set design. It would truly be difficult to recommend any changes in this performance of Doctor Faustus.

The Company’s delivery of the show left the viewer with delight—though obviously not of the subject matter. The audience was held in rapture from the moment Mephistophilis first illuminated the window on the balcony, until the very end when Faustus’ horrific death grappled our minds.

The performance shifted between the frightening and the comedic, the philosophical and the very real—the candid. Such is the fate of Faustus, gifted and cursed alike. More accolades should be shifted to Watkins, as the direction and artistic vision were apparent and nothing short of sophistication, reflection and quite obviously utter genius.

The Company began their production of Romeo and Juliet last night, and it will run until March 1st, when The Canterbury Tales will take over soon thereafter. One can assume that this year for the Company will be, in the words of Faustus, “a world of promise and delight.”