Dallas — The devil wears many faces—and can even wear Prada. In The Drama Club’s new production, the devil is a woman, but not necessarily a lady. After a four-year break, the Dallas-based theater company is launching an ambitious world premiere of Faust, by Michael Federico, Jeffrey Schmidt and Lydia Mackay, freely adapted from works by Goethe’s Faust and Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Set in the not-so-distant future, the new adaptation’s hero is a famed chemist, Dr. John Faust, who’s made his name in the Big Pharma world of Viagra look-alikes and diet pills. The play promises to bring a fusion of “theater, movement, music, and good old-fashioned horror” to Bryant Hall in the Kalita Humphreys Theater complex, opening Oct. 9 and closing with a costume party on Oct. 24.
TheaterJones talked to one of the show’s writers, Michael Federico, actor, producer and co-creator of On the Eve (along with Shawn and Seth Magill, and directed by Schmidt), which won the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum award for Outstanding New Play in 2013—and is currently being showcased at the National Alliance for Musical Theater's 2015 Festival of New Musicals with a killer cast of Broadway vets.
Federico, a Kitchen Dog Theater company member, is finishing up his performance in Pinter's The Dumb Waiter this weekend, as his other show opens.
TheaterJones: Three authors are listed for Faust. There’s also a mention of music. Who wrote the script and who is writing the song lyrics and music?
Michael Federico: Jeff and I wrote the script; Lydia was involved when we were brainstorming and creating the story, but the script is written by Jeff and me. Tim O’Heir [who earned a Tony nomination for his sound design of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway] is creating the original score. I’m writing the lyrics for the songs—there’s a lot of music, but only two or three little songs. Tim’s writing all the incidental music and the dance music.
How long have all of you been working on Faust?
The idea came up in January 2014 during the run of On the Eve at Theatre Three. It had opened and was and up and running, and Jeff and I started thinking about another collaboration.
In Goethe’s 19th century Romantic take on the legend, Faust is shown mercy for his dealings with the devil because he is truly striving to go beyond the known, and willing to risk his soul to make the journey. Marlowe’s Faust, on the other hand, is more directly linked with the commission of deadly sins, especially sins of the flesh. Where does your Faust stand?
We use the seven deadly sins from Marlowe, but Goethe’s Faust is absolutely where the most basic plot of the show comes from. We include the character of Gretchen [Goethe’s creation, an innocent girl whose love for Faust leads to her destruction]. John Faust is also striving for what he thinks is the greater good. He thinks what he learns by bargaining with the devil will help society. The play asks the question: What happens if you accomplish a great amount of good for people, but at the same time you have done bad things in your personal life? Are you damned even if you saved a million people? Does one outweigh the other? My hope is some people will think one way, and some another.
Is evil so complex? How does the play address Faust’s responsibility for his actions?
Faust ends up being his own worst enemy; his ambition destroys him. The responsibility is Faust’s—he could walk away and choose another path, but in our play he generally takes the wrong turn. Fundamentalists tend to say something is all good or all bad. Today, it seems things in politics and religion and the media are more rigid. It’s like you are damned if you do anything. That’s frightening to me, and way oversimplified. We seem to have lost nuance in our arguments in all these areas.
What does John Faust want from the devil?
He’s a chemist creating medicine. He’s created male-enhancement drugs and weight loss drugs, and now he wants something beyond that, something that he believes will actually help the world. He has figured out a way to see the mind of God. This was inspired, of course, by the effects of LSD and Ecstasy—and we all watched documentaries about hallucinogens and the incredible experiences people report having.
You mentioned the allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins in Marlowe’s Faustus. How do Greed, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, Lechery and so on play out in the show?
Faust gets involved with a group of cosplayers, people you might see at clubs who will fully costume themselves as characters. That was definitely an inspiration when we were dealing with the alchemy aspect of Marlowe’s Faust. It provided a good solution for the union of religion and science. All these cosplayers want to go to a place where they can be something totally different. Faust takes them to Wonderland. He becomes a kind of object of worship because he gives the club kids experiences they’ve never had before. Zenobia Taylor, our choreographer, has a lot of fun with movement and dancing in these sequences where Faust is whisked off to villages and mountaintops. The movement-based pieces are amazing. We have some dancers in the cast that do things that terrify me.
I know Jeff Schmidt is directing, and Cameron Cobb is Faust. Lydia Mackay is Mephistopheles. The devil is a woman. Why?
Mainly because when I started writing I knew that Cameron and Lydia would work well together. The relationship between the two of them could go a lot of different ways. Because Mephistopheles is a woman, it adds a certain tension to the script.
What about the element of horror touted in the early press for the show?
Jeff and I and Christie Vela [one of the show’s producers, and a member of the Dallas Theater Center and Kitchen Dog Theater companies] talked about how to frighten someone in the theater. Christie and I are both horror movie fans. We’re doing the show close to Halloween, and we draw on some classic horror tropes to see if we can truly scare people in live theater. Jeff hates horror movies, but we’re dealing with the devil and darker elements, so I was glad to see how he’s brought it all together in the show. I think it’s really scary.