Sell your soul
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus
If you’re looking for a little fire and brimstone this Halloween season, Nevada Repertory Company’s Doctor Faustus has it in spades. Thanks to a recent theater upgrade, its staging provides a delicious atmosphere of fear and dread.
It took almost $1 million to upgrade the Redfield Proscenium Theatre in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Church Fine Arts building, to bring its 50-year-old, potentially dangerous rigging system up to date. The new, computer-operated, motorized system installed this past summer enables new levels of creativity and stunt work, as well as vital skills for UNR theater students.
And it’s clear the department used every tool in its chest for The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, the story of a man so greedy and conceited that he sells his soul to Satan to get a little otherworldly magical power.
Faustus (Ethan Leaverton), clutching his doctoral degree, opens with a soliloquy about the pointlessness of life. He’s learned everything worth learning: Why study logic, when argument for its own sake yields nothing? Why study medicine when, ultimately, everyone dies? The only thing he doesn’t yet know is magic. For this, he must summon the power of hell.
After a few incantations, under the watchful eyes of his good angel (Ashley Gong) and his bad angel (Scott Davis)—harnessed to wires and patiently floating overhead for the duration of the play—Faustus repudiates God and calls upon Lucifer to take his soul in exchange for 24 years of power.
It is Mephistopheles (Cassandra Ambe), Lucifer’s servant devil, who arrives at Faustus’ door in the figure of a beautiful woman. I liked this departure from Marlowe’s script, which originally indicates that Mephistopheles arrives as a Franciscan friar. It provides lustful overtones to the relationship between Faustus and Mephistopheles, whom Lucifer (Lucas Peterson) agrees to let serve Faustus for 24 years in exchange for the man’s soul.
The stage trap doors and below-stage staircase, combined with the wire work up above, really give Nevada Rep the opportunity to play with the ideas of heaven and hell, and audiences will be impressed by how much scenery there is to absorb. Costuming and make-up are tremendous here as well, lending marvelous authenticity and beauty.
Ambe is lovely to watch, and makes it hard to imagine the character ever being male. Additionally, Sarah Rodriguez is hilarious as Robin the clown, the play’s comic relief.
While the acting on the whole is quite good, and Ethan Leaverton ably portrays the damned Faustus, the weighty Elizabethan language becomes difficult to follow due to two things: 1) the proscenium, in-the-round staging forces actors to deliver most lines with their backs to part of the audience; and 2) the tendency to just get through the difficult lines causes lightning-speed delivery. Leaverton, in particular, often compromises meaning for expediency, rushing his lines out so quickly that his powerful soliloquies are lost on the audience. And Peterson’s Lucifer lacks fire; his muttered lines portray boredom rather than intimidation and evil.
Despite these few flaws, Nevada Rep’s Doctor Faustus is visually spectacular and delightfully sinful.