Dallas — Whether you know the name Faust from Marlowe or Goethe, you certainly know the type of guy. Someone so good at what they do that the only way to justify your own meager accomplishments is to blame theirs on supernatural support.
The devil made him do it.
Or more specifically, he sold his soul. Only something that bad could explain how they’re that good, right? That feeling is universal. It’s why the story has been retold so many times, including a new version by The Drama Club, performed in Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus. It’s also how you’ll feel about them when you see this show. From soup to nuts, it’s everything Dallas theater should be trying to accomplish. If there are any seats empty during the run of this show, we get what we deserve.
Michael Federico, Lydia Mackay and Jeffery Schmidt wove together the story from tales both literate and personal. Consequently, Schmidt and Federico’s script takes us to a seamless near future that is remote but recognizable. From bacchanalian raves to drug infomercials to flying taxicabs, it has a much more thoroughly developed texture than your usual fly-by-night science fiction. Following the success of the Federico’s wondrous and witty On the Eve (created with Shawn and Seth Magill and directed by Schmidt), the depth of Faust shouldn’t be a surprise, but the sheer density of innovative solutions to theatrical storytelling challenges is unprecedented.
It’s enough to make you wonder if they had help from beyond.
To some degree, they did. Tim O’Heir who was nominated for a Tony Award for his sound design on Broadway's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, wrote original compositions and designed the sound. Taking full advantage of being both the set and lighting designer, Amanda West plays with intimacy and emptiness with large rolling black flats alternating between soft washes and angular expressionistic shapes. When the flats are turned just the right way, they reveal via reflection splashes of gloss black that could be the result of heavy industry or ritual sacrifice. There are times when the collaboration between the designers and director Jeffery Schmidt (who designs around town as well) is truly humbling.
Zenobia Taylor gets the evening underway by choreographing either a righteous rave or a glimpse of the underworld. For all of its chaos, it manages the audience’s focus responsibly, even garnering the first laughs of the evening out of recognition of this doomed dance. Cameron Cobb becomes the obvious focus of the goings on and ends on the floor in a heap. Andrews Cope’s entrance as Wagner establishes that Cobb is our Faust. They’re scientists at a drug company that are about to present their pitch to the board for more funding for expanded trials of their latest research. Their onstage chemistry is so good and the text so down-to-earth, the sci-fi refinements of hand held light-up screens and futuristic lab equipment go almost unnoticed.
The rest of the evening will proceed in this fashion. Each challenging turn will be accompanied by an even more engaging misdirection. Federico and Schmidt work as sort of sci-fi magicians. When the proceedings get too stuck on themselves, they’ll use humor to let the air out. A case in point is Drew Wall who plays the talkative cab driver, Phil. He functions as a chorus delivering an outsiders view, but Wall’s comedic talents also provide perfect counterweight to Cobb’s descending Faust. By virtue of their interaction, each extreme is magnified.
The sine qua non of a Faust is the devil’s representative: Mephistopheles. Lydia Mackay in a show-stopping sexy outfit, courtesy of costume designer Korey Kent, takes the stage with a lion tamer’s confidence. What makes her performance indispensible is the relationship she forges with Cobb’s Faust. In most productions, it’s all too easy for the all-too-powerful devil to overwhelm the mortal. She just comes off as humoring him. In Mackay’s hands, Mephistopheles has real work to accomplish with Faust. It’s hard work, but she makes a little pain look like a lot of fun.
There’s a chorus of talented performers without whom the evening couldn’t achieve its otherworldly success. It seems as if director Schmidt has zeroed in on talents as individual to each as Kamen Casey’s ability to instantly backflip or Steph Garrett to transform from a little girl to possessed demon (she does more in two minutes to creep you out than many spooky musicals do in two horus). As stunning as these individual accomplishments are, it’s the ability to then mesh instantly back into the group that reveals the breathtaking collaboration going on at The Drama Club.
What makes the story work as more than a thrill ride is the inclusion of the character of Gretchen (Chandler Ryan). Object of Faust’s affection, Gretchen has to go from objectified ideal to the flesh and blood real. Ryan can play both. More impressively, she can switch between them so quickly that it’s almost as if they’re the same thing (Duh!). The audience begins to root for Faust’s maturation from horny to honorable as he encounters the ho-hum hurdles of everyday relationships. Writers Federico and Schmidt infer that these challenges can be bigger than saving the world with a new drug.
How can Faust do both? Let’s just say that things don’t go as planned.
There are so many spine-tingling moments in Faust’s rise and fall. Cobb is onstage for most of them. Though the magic is often happening around him, he does have one life-summarizing soliloquy that must land squarely. Placed carefully as resting spot for the audience before summiting, it provides no such respite for this hard working actor. Cobb finds the energy at the end of a full evening to move us through time to his eventual end. He wins our understanding but not necessarily our sympathy.
Even so, when his end comes, it feels good not to be him. The creators saved one last trick that will stick with you.
So will the feeling that you’ve just seen a show that you’d never be able to match.
At least, not without a little help.