Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Cameron's review of The Nether
-- Mike Carey, Lucifer, Vol 10: Children and Monsters
With its current production of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the Quintessence Theatre Group has created a world filled with frightening demons and inspiring Angels. Faceless female hellions bare an uncanny resemblance to zombie nurses who staff the abandoned hospitals in the Silent Hill video games. A Good Angel alights on earth with a torso that looks as if chiseled from granite. Electronic music pulses while historical figures are summoned through time to fight and fuck. Puppeteers turn men into animals and men turn on each other with bloody violence. Lucifer himself appears as a decrepit old man, gnarled, smoldering, and horrible. But the scariest thing about Alexander Burns' Doctor Faustus is that he makes the whole thing look like so much god damned fun.
When the play begins, our modern day Doctor Faustus has already mastered all the schools of his University. Now the good doctor must find a new area of study worthy of his considerable intellect. Faustus sets his sights on magic and soon summons forth a devila servant to Lucifer called Mephistophilis. Faustus sells his soul in return for 24 years on earth with Mephistophilis as his own personal servant. Angels and devils warn of eternal damnation and urge repentance, but Faustus does not renounce his bargain. Instead, he travels the world with Mephistophilis on a dragon's back, learns all there is to know about magic, makes love with beautiful women, takes terrible vengeance on his enemies, and impresses the world with his magical skill and learning.
Josh Carpenter is beguiling as Mephistophilis. He shifts seamlessly between jocund comrade, tortured servant, and brutal fiend. The scenes in which Mephistophilis and Faustus (Gregory Isaac) adventure darkly together are fast paced, funny, and striking. Isaac is a surprisingly sympathetic Faustus, focusing on our anti-hero's academic pride rather than his ambition. Faustus' interest in learning about hell is so earnest that he watches the (highly entertaining) procession of seven deadly sins like an academic lecture rather than a dire warning. Unfortunately, Isaac never seems to take damnation seriously or convincingly struggle over his decision. In the absence of any intense internal struggle the play lacks a much needed sense of conflict.
Andrew Betz is hilarious as Robin, the bumbling clown who makes off with Faustus's book of spells. The comical interludes Betz and Tom Carman clamor through together are so funny it is difficult to believe the play was first performed over 400 years ago. John Basiulis is strong in several roles, but his baleful depiction of Lucifer is unforgettably ominous.
The entire company is strong and their many talents are on full display upon the runway-style stage that splits the Sedgwick Theater in two for this production. This unusual stage is used to create an intimate and eerie space where the door to hell itself may suddenly open beneath your feet. The lighting designs of Brian Sidney Bembridge contribute to the sinister effect, and selective use of puppets adds a bizarrely whimsical touch. A wide variety of electronic music adds a fantastic energy throughout. Director Alexander Burns has created an intriguing and original production. But best stay on your guard if you decide to attendmisery loves company and this Prince of Darkness is one wretched-looking devil.
Doctor Faustus runs through April 24, 2016, at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy Philadelphia. To purchase tickets or subscriptions, visit www.QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 1-215-987-4450. For ticket information please email BoxOffice@QuintessenceTheatre.org.