The devil is in the details


By Christopher Marlowe
Adapted by Jay Michaels
Directed by Mary Elizabeth Micari and Michael Fortunato
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Raw Space Theatre L
529 W. 42nd St. (279-4200/
Equity contract production (closes July 28)
Review by Jonathan Shandell

The chain of events behind this production begins in 1937, when a pre-Hollywood-fame Orson Welles directed his own adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus for the Federal Theatre Project in New York. Decades later, in 1972, Welles's friend John Houseman publishes an autobiography containing an enticing perspective on that historic project: "The legend of the man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power ... was uncomfortably close to the shape of Welles' own personal myth.... There are moments when Faustus seemed to be expressing some of Welles' personal agony and private terror." Cut to 2002, and the Genesis Repertory's fusion of Elizabethan drama and American stage history into their own theatrical version of the classic tale. Their new Faustus transplanted the legend of one man's diabolical transaction to "New York City, California [and] Hell, 1937-1962." The titular character became a power-hungry New York director (portrayed by Jay Michaels, a virtual dead-ringer for Orson himself) who bargains his soul to the demons of Hollywood fame and power. The text (also by Michaels) cobbles together two extant versions of the Marlowe play with Welles's own FTP Project 891 edition. Regardless of the results, this daring theatrical endeavor was refreshing for its artistic originality and ambition.

Just because Houseman once cast Orson Welles as a Faustian figure in contextualizing his friend's career, does that mean that recasting Doctor Faustus as Welles serves Marlowe's play? The jury is still out on that one. Some of Genesis Rep's touches served as delightful embellishments. When Faustus conjured up Helen of Troy and other such supernatural visions, the spirits emerged within the flickering white light of a movie projector, to the swelling strains of RKO-style underscoring (sound design by Rob DeScherer). Margo La Zaro's snappy early-20th-century costumes provided a clear visual language for Marlowe's mortal characters, and a striking contrast to Michael Fortunato's lavishly grotesque masks and shadowy lighting for the trips to Hell. There was clear dramatic potential in Genesis Rep's bold conceptual gambit of linking this archetypal story of monomania and unearthly longing to the transformative allure of early cinema, and to a recognizable latter-day monomaniac like Welles.

And yet, the effects of this particular experiment were not always alchemical. Directors Mary Elizabeth Micari and Michael Fortunato could have followed through with their cinematic touches more carefully. As often as not, the nods to Hollywood culture and the movie music beneath the dialogue were extraneous and distracting, employed without discernible intent beyond mere obeisance to the central concept. Their cast was noticeably uneven; though Michaels and Derek Devereaux as Mephistophilis carried much of the action adroitly, all performers stumbled uneasily with the task of accommodating 17th-century poetic verse to 20th-century social mannerisms. Their take on Doctor Faustus, enticing and potent though it was, never coalesced into any real theatrical payoff that augmented Marlowe's text or added much to Houseman's original Welles/Faustus analogy. Nor did it rescue Marlowe's script from its own antiquated feel or disjointed, episodic dramaturgy. But hopefully, Genesis Rep. will continue to struggle with these demons, and find a way to lift their worthy and ambitious project higher toward theatrical Heaven.

Also featuring: Amy K. Browne, Michael D'Antoni, Todd Allen Durkin, Bill Gallarno, Matthew Klein, Frank Rosner, Robert F. Saunders, Irma St. Paule.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Sets: N/A
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 Jonathan Shandell