Devil may care
University productions don’t usually fall under the purview of theater critics. But the line between university-trained actors and the actors that we see at the Sacramento Theatre Company, B Street Theatre and Foothill Theatre can be a fine line indeed. Foothill, in fact, has used UCD students in leading roles twice in recent years, and the B Street has also used some recently graduated 20-something actors (though not from UC Davis). And from time to time, the UC Davis theater department puts together a show that can stand alongside the productions by these professional theater companies—and the current production of Doctor Faustus at UC Davis is such a one.
After all, where else—except for a university, or one of the better established Shakespeare festivals such as Ashland or Santa Cruz—would you get a chance to encounter Christopher Marlowe’s script, written circa 1588? Commercial theater companies in these parts would never attempt it (too old, too many characters), while the language and supernatural elements are too much for most community groups.
Yet Doctor Faustus—as a script—is so damned good (forgive the phrase)! It may be more than 400 years old, but it ripples with energy and intelligence while also containing scenes of goofy, slapstick irreverence. Some of the lines have become standards of the English language—among the more famous being: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” (uttered by Faustus as he looks on Helen of Troy), and the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins.
But the line that always amazes me comes when Faustus, having signed over his soul and handed the deed to Mephistopheles, starts asking questions about the precise location of hell. And Mephistopheles replies, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
In this production, that showstopper—every bit as jarring as it was in the 1500s—is uttered with a level gaze by Frederick Snyder, made up with marvelously devilish, articulated eyebrows, wearing a facial expression that is at once teasing, conniving and inwardly aching with loss (over his fall from heaven). In other words, Snyder nailed the complexity of his part. Rob Wilson (a third-year graduate student) also delivers a very capable performance in the title role, and Adam Sartain gets you giggling with his baggy pants as the commoner Robin.
The production also features some beautiful costumes by Maggie Morgan, who’s designed for The Grinch and other films. These range from scholarly robes to rustic country bumpkin outfits to ecclesiastical vestments. Mephistopheles is dressed like a monk—based on a line by Faustus, who dislikes Mephistopheles’ first devilish appearance, and with a verbal twist of the playwright’s knife, instructs him “Go, and return an old Franciscan friar: that holy shape becomes a devil best.”
There are also one or two colorful devils with horns and sagging breasts. The only disappointing costume, alas, is worn by Lucifer himself, who is decked out in a sort of papier-mâché helmet with an interior microphone that doesn’t work very well.
Director William Gaskill—a grand old figure who worked with Olivier during the founding of the National Theatre in Britain—guides things with a steady hand. Gaskill has cut out several characters and scenes, mostly in the second half, making this a streamlined Faustus that runs 90 minutes without intermission. The show is presented in the university’s Wyatt Pavilion, a thrust stage theater that nicely suits the requirements of Marlowe’s script.