Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This premise has become the source of a host of retellings over the five centuries since Faust lived. First to gain literary traction was Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe's drama The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus in the late 16th century. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's epic closet drama Faust, published in 1808, is considered among the greatest works of German literature, while Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, published in 1947, used the tale to reflect upon the turmoil of the twentieth century. Among the notable writers who drew on the Faust legend in their work are Heinrich Heine, Mikhail Bulgakov, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Vincent Benét, Vaclav Havel and David Mamet. Work as varied as Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and the golden age musical Damn Yankees have a Faustian bargain at their core.
In A Prelude to Faust, the legend is told through the arts of puppetry. It is the creation of Michael Sommers, through a commission from the Walker Art Center in 1998. Sommers wrote the script, designed the puppets and their settings, and directed the piece. The work's great success was the springboard to the formation of Open Eye Figure Theatre by Sommers and his partner Susan Haas, who both produces the work and designs costumes. In 2007, Open Eye Figure Theatre revived A Prelude to Faust to celebrate their move into an intimate theater space of their own in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their founding, Open Eye has once again brought back A Prelude to Faust for what has been announced as its final staging.
In Sommers' vision of the tale, Mephistopheles, the devil's agent on earth, sets upon Kaspar, a servant who is to clean Faust's chamber. Kaspar is a hard worker with a rough life and a wife who will brook no nonsense, but he is always in good cheer. His good friend Marmoset arrives, a sad sack of a fellow, about whom Kaspar says "Even if his ship did come in, he wouldn't bother to unload it." Things change after Kasper discovers a book containing texts that transform objects and creatures. Instead of Kaspar doing the work, the tools of cleaning begin working for Kaspar, who remarks "What a pleasant surprise! I always knew a servant was a master in disguise." Kaspar shares his good fortune with Marmoset, unaware that the devil intends to exact a price. Interspersed throughout the story, we are visited by Everyman, a disconsolate human (actor Julian McFaul) whose hunched body barely fits within the arch of the puppet theater. A scaled down puppet replica of Everyman offers solace to his larger self, with gestures that are utterly heartrending.
Along with the characters, objects that seem animated by magiccandles floating across space, cups with smoke rising from them, spinning eggs, tumbling applescross the stage, and disembodied hands reach out from cupboard doors to write titles in chalk, proclaiming scene changes or asking such questions as "Is Faust complicit?" Accompanying the cornucopia of visual, verbal, and narrative imagination is the music: a score composed by Michael Koerner and played by a lively four-piece ensemble (cello, clarinet, piano and trombone) with a middle-European sound, sometimes filling the air with the gaiety of a circus or a polka party, other times releasing tones of loss and regret.
It is impossible to overstate the beauty of Sommers' stringed puppets and set designs. Their carved faces convey a depth of feeling that the best of human actors would be hard pressed to match. Susan Haas has costumed these characters with whimsy and affection. The four actor/puppeteers who operate the puppets (MacKenzie Elker, Julian McFaul, Rick Miller and Ben Shaw) can make them swoop with graceful leaps or make the most subtle of gestures, and the spatial orientation of each puppet in relation to the others is always precisely right. Delightful effectssuch as the rapid tap-tapping of the officious character Wagner's shoesadd humor to the splendor of the work.
Not everything happening on the squat Open Eye Figure Theatre stage made sense to me. Some things, I admitthe eggs and the candles for examplewere striking images, but did not convey any meaning to me. But with so much compressed into the time and space occupied by A Prelude to Faust in its 75 minutes, it seemed akin to a buffet of words, actions, sounds, images, and narrative thrust, and any combination of those provides a satisfying feast for the mind and spirit, even if some offerings are left untouched.
What is taken from the array offered and how those parts are assembled in one's mind will vary among audience members. Some aspects of the narrative and the characters project cynicism and sloth. Others suggest the strengths of resilience and ingenuity. Finally, there are beams of hope, good will, and the innate goodness of humankind. It's all there, as much in the eye of the beholder as in the artistry set before us. Whatever message or feelings the viewer absorbs, Prelude to Faust is a stunningly realized work of puppet theater.
A Prelude to Faust, through November 17, 2018, at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $24.00 general admission, $22 seniors, 15.00 students. A limited number of $10.00 economic accessibility tickets available online. A limited number of pay-as-able tickets are available at the door. For tickets go to openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338
Playwright, Director and Designer: Michael Sommers; Composer: Michael Koerner; Music Director: Victor Zupanc; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Sean Healey: Costume Design: Susan Haas; Assistant Director: Jay Owen Eisenberg; Technical Director: Brandon Sizneroz; Set Construction: Dean Holtzman; Stage Manager: Brian Hirt; Producers: Susan Haas and Joel Sass.
Cast: Mackenzie Elker (Lil/Jezebel/Poodle), Julian McFaul (Kaspar/Everyman), Rick Miller (Wagner/ Spindleshank/Little Man), Ben Shaw (Marmoset/Dante/Helen of Troy). Musicians: Dave Bicking (clarinet/conductor), William Danaher (trombone), Jason Kornelis (cello), Danylo Loutchko (piano).