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Doctor Faustus

Chris Noth and Zach Grenier in DOCTOR FAUSTUS. … Joan Marcus

                                         by Deirdre Donovan

Christopher Marlowe’s warhorse Doctor Faustus gets new legs at the Classical Stage Company this season.  As adapted by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader, who also directs, it may lose some of its grandeur but gains a lot of levity and comic bite with its contemporary language. 

You know the myth:  Doctor Faustus is about Doctor John Faustus who made a pact with the devil: Faust requests worldly success and pleasure for 24 years and the devil will then claim Faustus’ soul as his own. 

Before parsing the current production, you should make it a point to read the Classic Stage Company’s (CSC) recent newsletter with its superb essay by CSC’s Artistic Director Brian Kulick on the birth of the Faust myth.  Kulick writes that it is based on Johann Spies’ The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Johann Faustus (That long and cheerless title is often truncated to The Faustus Book).  Kulick then succinctly explains how Doctor Faustus was actually an historical figure that was a necromantic showman who traveled throughout lower Bavaria.  He would create “makeshift stages” and conjure up iconic characters from Homer for his enthralled audiences, with his show’s capstone being the entrance of Helen of Troy.  Indeed Faustus was the stuff of legend, and after his death, Spies put the legendary man into print.  Marlowe eventually got hold of his Faustus Book when it migrated to England and read it in Mr. P. F. Gent’s English translation.  The rest, of course, is theatre history. 

Now for a warning to future ticketholders to this show!  If you sit in the front row, be prepared to be buttonholed and invited onstage by a performer.  At the preview performance I attended, a woman in the front row was enticed out of her seat and pulled onto the stage to join in the ongoing antics.  And, truth be told, she was so good at her theatrical ad libbing that I immediately suspected that she must be a shill.   But whether she was, or wasn’t, misses the real point here.  The audience itself becomes a character in this show.  And whoever gets tugged into the spotlight can momentarily steal the show. 

Audience participation aside, the problem with this Doctor Faustus is that it has little psychological depth.  It doesn’t plumb the shadowy depths of the myth or offer a profound interpretation of the old play.  

That said, Belgrader does make it more freewheeling and accessible than more traditional productions. Anybody who has ever sat through a full stage production of Doctor Faustus before knows that it can proceed at a too sluggish pace.  So the real plus for the CSC’s current production is that Belgrader doesn’t approach it too reverently or as strictly a moral play.  Instead, he spins it as a modern tale that urgently needs to be retold today.  

Remember the Seven Deadly Sins?  Well, you will be reintroduced to them here by Mephistopheles. And in case you forgot them, they go by very familiar names:  Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, the twins Gluttony and Envy, Sloth, and Lust.  Belgrader makes each come dramatically alive one by one on stage, and vividly embodied by various ensemble members.  It is a memorable scene from the play, and Belgrader has it play out here with comic verve.  

The acting is serviceable with no standouts.  Chris Noth plays the titular character with more restraint than passion.   He possesses the physical command of a Doctor Faustus but doesn’t penetrate into the moral void of his character.  Still, his Faustus manages to get across the dilemma of an intellectual whose appetite for knowledge is in dangerous conflict with obeying God’s commandments.  

The rest of the ensemble are in step with Noth and deliver the theatrical goods, if not with subtlety, with down-to-earth directness.  Zach Greniers’ Mephistopheles is perhaps the most chilling character on stage.  His Mephistopheles has a mild and unpretentious manner that masks his poisonous designs on Doctor Faustus’ soul.

The uncluttered set by Tony Straiges allows the character to move freely about the performing area. Jason Lyons’ lighting isn’t restricted to the stage but often spills across the footlights into the seating area to spotlight audience members.  No complaints with Rita Ryack and Martin Schnellinger‘s period costumes.  They are all cut just right. 

If you are looking for a psychologically layered Doctor Faustus, you won’t find it in this production.  But you do get something else:  Marlowe’s classic play served up with a comic twist and the stark reminder that dealing with Lucifer is a romp that leads to hell. 

Through July 2nd.

At the Classic Stage Company, located at 136 East 13th Street, in the East Village.

For tickets and more information:  Phone 866-811-4111; 212-352-3101 or visit

Running Time:  2 hours; 10 minutes with intermission.