Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, January 22, 2007

In Rehearsal for "Doctor Faustus"

What with all the football stuff lately, it’s easy to forget that this blog was originally intended to be about the arts. (You know, when I’m not talking about sports. Or woodpeckers. Or comic books. Ooh! The new Iron Man animated feature comes out on Tuesday! But I digress.) We’re two weeks into rehearsals for Doctor Faustus at Richmond Shakespeare, so I thought I’d share the joy with you.

“Joy” is the operative word here. We are having, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a hell of a lot of fun in the blue room at Tabernacle Baptist five nights a week. For our mid-evening break every night, we play pool, air hockey, and table-tennis. One thing I know: When I own a theatre company, there will be pool, air hockey, and table-tennis in the rehearsal hall. The sense of play these artists have displayed has made every day of rehearsal a joy. That’s obviously not caused by the ever-present toys and games, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Here’s an introduction to the major players in the company:

Yours Truly is the Master of Play. I’m the overall architect of the show’s concept, which should probably frighten everyone involved. I run a very loose ship, rife with digressions and distractions. This is a very heavy play, so we’re trying to treat it as light as possible.

Julie Phillips is the Master of Verse. Julie knows about 2000% more about the play than I do. She’s the order to my chaos, the water to my fire, the Yin to my “Yippee!” She’s taking care of all the things I forget to notice, and she’s also responsible for the excellent English translations of the voluminous amounts of Latin spouting from Faustus’ mouth, not to mention making sure that he spouts the right pronunciations. One more than one occasion, she has stepped up with huge upgrades to my ideas. Perhaps most importantly, she has completely signed on to the show’s concept and my idiotic rehearsal style.

Dave White plays Doctor Faustus. He’s a wonderful mix of gravity and goofiness, and constantly surprises me with his ability to come up with odd impulses that are just perfect for the moment. He’s an excellent actor-combatant, which has inspired me to make the show even more physical than I had envisioned. He’s brought in lots of research into occult iconography, and he’s letting me borrow his first two Preacher trade paperbacks, which are really quite disturbing.

Graham Birce plays everything else. His Mephistophilis walks like a broken toy and perches like a monkey, perfect impulses on a set littered with toys and junk. Graham is just weird, and in just the right ways for the show. He’s totally fearless, diving into whatever strange activity we dream up for him. His character voices and puppet manipulation are a delight, but it’s his performance as the First Scholar, AKA “Carpet Face” is the true standout.

Tony Lombard, whom I call Ichabod St. Johnson is our stage manager. A junior at the Center for the Arts at Henrico High School, Tony is more of a pro than some professional stage managers I’ve worked with. He’s efficient without being sour, assertive without being pushy. And he pretty consistently kicks my butt at air hockey.

Angie Pirko has been serving as our Props Mistress, helping me compile the massive list of crazy stuff we need and going on long shopping trips to thrift and dollar stores. She’s since gone back to college, but we’re hopeful she can make it back to see the show.

Becky Capeheart is designing the makeup for Mephistophilis, as well as filling in as emergency rehearsal stage manager on occasion. She also guided me to some excellent glue at Michael's, where she works.

So far, this has been among the most collaborative experiences of my theatrical career. I started with a very specific artistic vision, but everyone has contributed to the overall look and feel of the piece.

The script is Christopher Marlowe’s, adapted by Jeffrey Watkins, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta. It’s cut down for two actors, but every word is Marlowe’s; at its core this is still Marlowe’s play. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jeff Watkins last week in Nashville, where we were both attending the STAA (Shakespeare Theatre Association of America) conference, and let me tell you it’s a rare gift to get to chat with the person responsible for your script, playwright or adapter. His insight has been invaluable. His delight at our take has been even better.

Watkins’ productions of this script have been centered on the idea that Faustus is in Hell, damned to repeat the events of his fall every day for eternity. Watkins’ Mephistophilis enters Faustus’ cell, makes him go through it, and then exits, having an entire cell block of souls to torment and a very busy schedule.

In our production, Mephistophilis is locked in with Faustus for all eternity; Mephistophilis is just as damned as Faustus. The major difference is that while Mephistophilis is compelled to move Faustus’ story forward he is aware of the artifice, while Faustus experiences every moment anew, as if for the first time. Faustus believes every illusion that Mephistophilis places before him; if he is handed a fish and told it’s a sword, he endows the fish with all of the qualities of a sword. Every day, Faustus awakens and begins the cycle anew, treating each moment as if it is the first time it has ever happened, forever predestined to fall, and fall again. Every day, Mephistophilis too begins the cycle anew, but he is fully aware of the fact that he has been doing this every day for centuries and that he will be doing it every day until God decides that time is over.

So who is tormenting whom?

We’ve been playing with the images of cellmates in prison, or people locked up together in an asylum, or even college roommates who can’t stand each other. We’ve also been very much aware of the adolescent nature of Faustus’ pat dismissal of the wisdom of the ages in the first scene, as he systematically decides that his own logic trumps Aristotle, Galen, and the Bible. It’s all quite childish, so we’re filling the play with childishness; toys, puppets, and stuffed animals in Mephistophilis’ hands become magical, wondrous items or characters in Faustus’ eyes.

So here we have an opportunity for a couple actors to really stretch into the totality of what actors can do. I hope.

Doctor Faustus previews February 1, and runs February 2-24. Performances are Thursday and Friday nights at 8:00 and Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00.

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