You may be surprised to learn who the star is at the center of the Genesis Repertory production of Faustus currently playing in the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Your program may tell you that Jay Michaels is playing the title role, and while that's ostensibly true, this Faustus is really about Orson Welles.
Welles, who played Faustus in a major 1937 Broadway revival of Christopher Marlowe's work, was even compared to the doctor who signs over his soul for success in the black arts by John Houseman. And while the comparison may, perhaps, be apt, whether it needs to be the redefined subject of Faustus is still in question. When movie posters for The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello, and The Touch of Evil appear at one point, it's hard to shake the notion that this production has taken the concept a step or two too far.
The script, adapted by Michaels from three other versions of Christopher Marlowe's work, uses almost exclusively original text, which makes the concept, even if questionable, far from destructive. That the script has been intelligently executed by directors Mary Elizabeth MiCari and Michael Fortunato is a great benefit - any number of clever and original ideas definitely set this Faustus apart. (Their method of presenting the spirits Faustus summons? From movies, of course!) This is a smooth and highly polished production, lavish and colorful, with few seams to be found.
Beyond the script, the show ultimately works as well as it does because of Michaels and Derek Devareaux, who plays Mephistophilis, the agent of Lucifer sent to serve Faustus for twenty-four years. Both actors possess powerful expressive voices, and know how to wield them like weapons. Devareaux is menacing without being overwhelming, and Michaels is tragic without being pitiful. Their performances complement each other beautifully, and give the play just the core it needs, exactly where it needs it. The other actors all give very solid performances, with few weak links to be found, but Michaels and Devareaux walk away with Faustus, turning it into what is basically an explosive two man show.
Special mention should also be made of Margo La Zaro, the show's costume designer, who creates two distinctly different worlds that somehow seem perfectly at home together. Though, at first glance, the movers and shakers behind mid-20th century New York and Hollywood don't have much to do with the denizens of Hell, La Zaro makes the connections readily apparent. When Faustus meets the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, each one is simultaneously attractive and grotesque, appealing and repellant. It's not at all impossible to see what Faustus found so intoxicating about the underworld life.
Whether about a modern entertainment artist battling his own personal demons or a doctor torn between the occult and the holy, the Genesis Repertory Faustus is a striking and highly original production. Though a superb vehicle for a talented leading man, this Faustus manages to give Michaels, Marlowe, and Welles all top billing.