Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus
The Bard's contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, wrote The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which inspired this new Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus, currently being presented by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. And, in the 2018 "hybridized" modern/antique update, the storytelling hardly ever drags. The dialogue does "undulate" in its frequent capitulations to modern tastes, but for the most part, it's intriguing and charming. The problem is our own unpracticed sense of artfulness that leaves us lagging behind after a while. Playwright John Wolbers gives us a treatment of the Faust legend that dances in and out of the classical form, into charming modern references (usually in the form of punch lines) with surprising elegance.
Which is not to say I didn't momentarily "check-out," in act two, here and there, at The Chapel on Alexander. I am a product of my time, and if there aren't car chases or space battles every three to five minutes, well, it's only a cruel reminder of how vapid and superficial I've become in the 32 years since I spent one summer in verse boot-camp, rehearsing and performing in Richard III, and As You Like It.
There are genuinely great moments in this new version of Faust, under the naturalizing influence of director Ellie Schwetye. Her staging of the two-act, two-hour and twenty minute play also combines elements of the classical and the popular, as actors frame the modern love story, along with Faust's rise to fame and fortune, in pro- and epilogue. The imposing set by Bess Moynihan is purely symbolic, featuring modern archeology: laptops and go-cups and mirrors are all melted into tall, carbonite-style slabs. Each blackened decoupage reminds us that the seven deadly sins are alive and well today. The lighting by Dominick Ehling is lively and highlights story elements, but is low on dramatic flair, probably owing to budget.
The basics of the story are well known: a learned man (in this case, a woman, played by the engaging Ashley Bauman) sells his/her soul to the devil in exchange for occult knowledge and the great earthly power that comes with it. A big part of what sparks this new version, aside from the regular glimmers of wit, are Michael Pierce as Dr. Faustus' boyfriend, and Taleesha Caturah as both Mephistophilis, and (even more importantly) as an Oprah Winfrey-like media mogul who eventually becomes Faustus' adversary.
Ms. Caturah is instantly, steadily, sharp and fascinating in every moment on stage, and you can barely take your eyes off her. The rhythms of her psychological engineering enliven Mr. Wolbers' verse. Mr. Pierce is a young matinee idol, with good stage presence and fine emotion, especially when Ms. Bauman is caught in the throes of temptation. They are joined on stage by always-impressive Nicole Angeli, who slips in and out of identities as each of the deadly sins; and wily Joe Hanrahan as a professor whom Ms. Bauman has gotten thrown out of work, on charges of sexual harassment.
It's just not something we're used to hearing, though the twining language is usually reinforced by good narrative structure. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble has turned out one great show after anotherand this one becomes great as well, by taking on the noble task of updating a legend from the fifteenth century. But it is sometimes missionary work, watching the seasons change between myth and modernity. We, and the actors, do it for the good of the art.
Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus, through November 17, 2018 at The Chapel on Alexander, 6238 Alexander Dr., just off Skinker and Wydown, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.slightlyoff.org